I’ve spent much of the week chasing round after blokes wearing high-vis vests in South-West London. Why? It’s the attire of choice for what we colloquially term in Britain ‘white van man’ – the guys who drive delivery trucks and vans around our cities, day-in, day-out. I wanted to understand and film the life of a van driver, and his van, because earlier this week Ford announced the first of its four electric vehicles was going to be a small delivery van. And while this left some surprised (obviously, they were going to make an electric car, right?) I think it’s a smart move (see the video below) – and wanted to know if the guys who drive vans agreed.
The plan is to bring a new version of the Transit Connect we already have in Europe, to the US market for 2010, and offer a purely electric battery-powered version too. While it looks like the US will be first to receive the electric van, we think that the topic of delivery vans is truly relevant to cities all over the world. The boom in online shopping has seen their number increase dramatically in recent years, and the way vans are typically used is an ideal fit for the characteristics of an electric vehicle. Much more so than the typical family car, I’d venture.
Most vans live in cities. This means they’re subject to lots of stop-start traffic, and short journeys between drop-off points just a few miles apart (see the video below for more footage of vans in the city). This environment’s where an electric vehicle will tend to provide the greatest gains over a regular combustion engine - which is at its least efficient on short, cold, stop-start cycles. As mentioned, we’re conducting more in-depth research on this (more in a minute) but our, and Ford’s, hunch is the typical Transit Connect-type delivery van covers less than 100 miles each day. Most people’s concern about electric vehicles is to do with ‘range anxiety’ – or the “but what about when I need to drive 400 miles across the country in one go?” question. This is relevant for many car drivers, but a city delivery van makes huge sense as the market point at which to introduce an electric vehicle, because the nature of van-based deliveries in urban areas doesn’t require the infinitely extendable, on-the-go fill up capabilities (and range) that the current internal combustion engine, gasoline and fuel station combo offer.
Environmentally, electric vehicle in cities are advantageous because they eliminate tail-pipe pollution. The big deal here isn’t really carbon emissions and the climate change story, but the elimination of soot, particulate matter and NOx that the diesel vans emit, because these pollutants are thought to be one of the main causes of local respiratory diseases. And with city mayors around the globe taking the lead on cutting carbon emissions and getting tough with legislation, we’re already starting to see (and can envision much wider implementation of) central inner-city core areas becoming blanket emissions-free vehicle only zones. Are big-city shop owners going to need an electric, or hydrogen powered van to get deliveries to their stores in the not-too-distant future? We wouldn’t bet against it…
With many vans bought by fleet organisations (in London we reckon Virgin Media, Majestic Wine Warehouse, BT and Securicor run fleets of Transit Connects) – Ford gets the (useful) opportunity to closely monitor large numbers of these vehicles, getting real-world feed back easily and readily – much harder to do with individual car customers.
And we’re pleased to see that it’s Smith Electric Vehicles – a UK based firm - who’ll be doing the conversions for Ford. We mentioned them in our piece a couple of years back, about the opportunity we saw in a further electric delivery truck advantage – their (almost) silent running. Today, in cities like London, organisations like the big supermarkets – who want to make deliveries at night, can’t. Councils have to grant them special permits, and limit the number of night deliveries, because the noise disturbance to (sleeping) city residents caused by diesel tractor units, is too great. Eliminate this, and get a little inventive with the way goods are taken on and off the truck and into the store, and EVs could form the backbone of an entirely new nighttime delivery network. The benefit? Reducing congestion. Deliveries in the daytime, combined with the way our city centres have evolved, actually creates vast amounts of traffic congestion, because vans have to park in (and therefore) block traffic lanes to make drop offs.
So could electric vans underpin an entire new delivery network? It was an idea Florian Seidl - now a designer at Fiat, and I, explored last year, in a concept which you can see the results of below. We’ll revisit it as part of our ongoing research into the subject of electric vans, in the near future. For now, it looks like our hunch might have been right - electric vans are set to silently win the battle of the streets.
Above - Florian Seidl and Joseph Simpson's design for a new electric van-based delivery system - click for larger images... Below - Our vans photoset on flickr. We'll be adding to this over the coming weeks:
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 13th February 2009
All images - Joseph Simpson. "Forky" electric delivery vehicle image - joint authorship with Florian Seidl - used with kind permission.
Disclosure: Ford is sponsoring The Movement Deisgn Bureau's design research work in 2009.