If you speak to anyone who is familiar with the delivery ecosystem, they will tell you that this final mile, or last mile, is the most difficult. It is also, however, the easiest to electrify.
Those commercial vehicles responsible for the middle mile–delivery from the depot to the stores—are large and must travel long distances. They require very heavy, expensive batteries and range anxiety becomes more of an issue for long-haul journeys. In comparison, smaller vans are easier to electrify.
The green mile
While there might be disagreement on the net contribution of e-commerce to our carbon footprint, there is less disagreement about the benefits of delivery companies electrifying their fleets. In the US, for example, transportation is responsible for over 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector.
Some have argued that even if electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, the electricity used to charge them would still leave a substantial carbon footprint, thereby making the switch to EVs pointless without first de-carbonizing the grid. Recent academic research from Nature challenges this argument, offering data that in 95% of the world, electric vehicles produce less CO2 emissions than fossil fuel powered cars. The small exceptions are in countries like Poland, which rely heavily on coal to produce electricity.
Governments around the world are incentivizing businesses to switch to electric fleets. For example, in the UK, electric vehicles are eligible for a 100% discount on charges in the London congestion zone. A vehicle entering the zone five days a week for 50 days a year would therefore save £2,625.
Electric vehicles also allow businesses to save money on maintenance and fuel costs. Until recently, these lower maintenance costs compensate for higher purchase prices. However, the cost of the vehicles themselves is constantly coming down. And as more companies make the switch to electric, economies of scale and improvements in battery technology will drive down the costs further.
Even when the environmental and business case for switching to electric vehicles is strong, things are not always so simple in practice. That’s what Amazon found out when it first sought to electrify its fleets.
The company had begun by assuming that it simply needed to find a model already on the market that matched its requirements. What it found instead was that the existing vehicles did not meet is specific requirements or those that did were not produced on a large enough scale. The company therefore entered into a partnership with Rivian to help design its own vehicles and play a role in scaling up the market. Amazon ordered 100,000 vans from Rivian—the largest single purchase of electric trucks in history.
The Amazon-Rivian partnership highlights the importance of design flexibility. Both vehicle manufacturers and their parts suppliers need to be able to adapt to the specific requirements of different delivery ecosystems. Many companies will trial a dozen or more alternative fuelled vehicles on a small scale before switching permanently from diesel engines, so the ability to offer customizable designs and bespoke parts will help accelerate the electrification transformation.Roger Brereton is head of sales at Pailton Engineering, a steering joint specialist that supplies custom steering parts for commercial vehicles, including electric trucks and electric vans.