The electric vehicles delivering an urban revolution
Moving stuff around cities is becoming an even more intractable problem than moving people. While personal travel plummeted during the pandemic, urban traffic remained remarkably constant as deliveries took up the slack. Even in pre-pandemic times, Transport for London predicted that the city’s light commercial traffic would increase by 22 per cent between 2011 and 2031, and this was before the flourishing of digital infrastructure that enabled takeaways and one-hour deliveries at the swipe of a screen.
The key issue now is reducing the impact of all that at-home retail therapy. And the uptake of kinder, smarter commercial vehicles. The next few years will see several pure electric delivery vehicles come to the market. While the most familiar four-wheeled beasts of burden are slowly switching over to electric power, a new generation of purpose-built commercial EVS is threatening to disrupt their comfortable ubiquity. An all-electric Ford Transit, a mainstay of light delivery in Europe since 1965, won’t be with us until 2023. Thanks to a link-up with VW, it will be built alongside the electric evolution of the iconic 1950 Volkswagen Type 2. The Ford-volkswagen collaboration demonstrates the sheer scale of investment needed to get these vehicles out of the concept stage and into the hands of consumers. Volkswagen’s commercial vehicle arm is seeking to make its new machine a fully autonomous vehicle, using tech from the American company Argo AI (owned in part by Ford and Volkswagen).
The major players can also afford to build innovation sandpits, where new ideas can be tried out before being released into the wild. Volkswagen is using the Dodecanese island of Astypalea as an autonomous playground, in collaboration with the Greek government. Maik Stephan, head of business development at Volkswagen and Astypalea’s project manager, describes it as an ‘e-mobility lab and a lighthouse project for sustainable mobility’, a place to ‘show and test how networked, climate-friendly and electrified mobility already works today’.
This low-key initiative could end up radically changing the whole mobility ecosystem. Volkswagen will bring its entire EV range to the island – from the ID.3 and ID.4 cars to electric scooters by its Spanish subsidiary Seat. ‘In total, some 1,000 electric vehicles will replace about 1,500 vehicles with combustion engines,’ says Stephan. ‘Our charging company
Elli will install the infrastructure and we’ll also bring in ride- and vehicle-sharing.’ Stephan says they will soon be working on 12 city partnerships, including arrangements with Hanover, Barcelona and Hefei.
While Volkswagen and Ford fervently hope that the small businesses and delivery networks of tomorrow will simply swap their vans for EV equivalents, more»
and more challengers are entering the arena. British start-up Arrival has ambitious plans for zero-emission vehicles, from buses to vans. ‘We’re developing vehicles as well as micro-factories in the UK and America,’ says Jeremy Offer, the company’s chief design officer. ‘The whole premise is that we can manufacture wherever the demand is. This is a market ripe for disruption.’ Arrival believes that even innovative companies like Tesla still have a very traditional manufacturing approach. Arrival is being nothing if not bold, committing to manufacturing and designing every single component that goes into each vehicle, as well as building the factories that supply them.
Offer describes Arrival’s two products as having ‘more in common with a piece of architecture than transport’. The ground-up approach is facilitated by a flat-floor modular platform. Need a bigger bus? Simply add a module. Acknowledging there are different cultural approaches to bus travel in London, Mumbai and São Paulo, Arrival can adapt its vehicle interiors to suit local needs. ‘We can scale the vehicle up or down, add or remove seats,’ says Offer. Thus far, Arrival’s biggest contract is with UPS, which has ordered 10,000 vans, a deal reported to be worth around £340m. Even when resplendent in UPS brown, the Arrival van is a cut above a conventional vehicle. With almost infinite customisation possibilities, it is utilitarian in a true, no-nonsense kind of way.
Arrival is not the sole disruptor on the block. Californian start-up Canoo is ramping up interest in its proposed multi-purpose delivery vehicle. There’s also the Zero from Sweden’s Volta Trucks, a large commercial vehicle with a low-set driver’s cab to improve awareness of cyclists and pedestrians. The Chinese-owned British manufacturer LEVC is offering the VN5, essentially a London cab without windows, while there are smaller players seeking to monetise the ‘last mile’ transport puzzle, where a light footprint is far more important than bulk. As part of our Re-made project (W*256), Wallpaper* helped assemble an elite team – including designer Konstantin Grcic, electric bike maker Cake, Norwegian aluminium company Hydro, and EV brand Polestar – to build the Re:move prototype. Grcic’s vision of a one-person electric transporter is minimal in appearance but maximal in scope, a lightweight way of shifting 275kg of goods with zero emissions.
Autonomy is the other elephant in the room. Ambitious plans for ‘smart cities’ have been put on the perpetual backburner. The environments best suited to automation are smooth-flowing highways and the uniform predictability of the American suburbs. As complexity increases, practicality plummets; expect quiet campuses to be the first place where autonomy takes hold. Stop-start delivery traffic might be guided by computer, but the final act of delivery will remain a resolutely human activity for a while longer.
It’s tempting to imagine a future where traffic noise has evaporated and anything larger than a bicycle has become a robotised servant to our logistical whims. But it’ll be a long haul to change the shape of urban logistics. For example, America still has a bottomless hunger for pick-up trucks; around three-quarters of a million Ford F150s alone are sold every year. Yet within a few years, there will finally be some credible electric alternatives, including GMC’S Hummer EV, the Tesla Cybertruck and the Rivian R1T. None of these vehicles will do much for urban commerce and congestion, but they’ll help hasten the universal acceptance of EVS.
The other perennial question – and one which car makers are unsurprisingly loathe to address – is whether cities even need quite so many vehicles. Across Europe, the lockdowns resulted in an initial reduction in private car use, and many governments seized the chance to make these changes permanent. Paris is planning to turn the Champs-élysées into a mile long garden by 2030, and cities including London, Milan and Dublin are implementing increasingly stringent car-reduction schemes. Copenhagen and Oslo are well ahead of the pack, while Hamburg announced its intention to eventually go car-free way back in 2014. The petrol engine is unlikely to have a future in Western cities after the end of this decade.
That won’t necessarily do much for traffic. In the time it took to write this article, the doorbell rang countless times, announcing delivery after delivery, dumped on the doorstep by a number of competing companies, while a diesel van idled away in the street. These are now as vital a part of the city’s infrastructure as water mains or broadband connection. Cities have spent well over a century being bent out of shape by the motor car; now it is time for urbanism to fight back and dictate the form of the vehicles deemed calm and considerate enough to deserve a place within them. *
‘We can manufacture wherever the demand is. This is a market ripe for disruption’