Silent Running: The Emerging Age of Electric Logistics
It's a common site across the globe. Large trucks parked in the middle of the city streets, or more often than not, in bicycle lanes, delivering goods to businesses (BTB) or, as a result of growing e-commerce increasingly to consumers (BTC).
Chances are good that if you're reading this, you have at some point in recent past, had something you ordered from a company delivered to your home or business. In my case, it was a bamboo bicycle (FedEx) and a ZeHus Bike+ motor for it from Italy (DHL). As I write this, there's a special USB cable headed across the Atlantic that DHL will deliver to my doorstep. In fact, hardly a week goes by when UPS, FedEx, or the US Postal Service doesn't delivery some kind of small parcel to a neighbor. And that trend is forecast to accelerate.
Take the growing phenomenon of home delivery to groceries in Britain. A 2014 study in the UK entitled "Improving the Efficiency of Freight Movements: the Contribution to the UK Economic Growth", found that 13% of Brits are now doing their grocery shopping online. That represents about 5% of what shoppers there are spending on food; and this number is expected to double by 2016, according to the Institute of Grocery Distribution. That could mean upwards of an additional 1.7 million van trips annually.
Increasingly, city planners and logistics companies are investigating ways to deal with this trend that doesn't mean putting more diesel trucks on already congested city streets or adding to local air pollution and noise.
One obvious possible solution is the use of low-speed electric vehicles from electric cargo bikes to cargo hoppers: in the latter's case, think of public street version of airport 'bag' carts that move passenger luggage and freight between the terminal and the aircraft. Strings of securely locked carts would be pulled by enclosed electric 'tugs' to city center distribution points. From there, cargo bikes and electric shuttles like the ingenious concept vehicle above designed by Adam Schacter or the experimental, six-wheeled Renault Twizy depicted below would move consolidated shipments over regular neighborhood routes. In these situations, battery range and highway speed are less important than the ability to nimbly navigate congested streets.
Experiments and demonstration programs are already underway globally. In Europe, UPS has deployed more than 20 electric versions of their P80 delivery vans. DHL is making first and last mile deliveries, which happen to be the most expensive segments of the logistics chain, with electric cargo bikes.
With half of the world's population now residing in cities, feeding, clothing, supplying and entertaining those billions will require innovative solutions and it appears that small, low-speed delivery vehicles represent a way to address those needs while also providing jobs and faster, more agile customer service.
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