When you’re credited with inventing the automobile, chances are you’re not going to leave many stones unturned when reinventing the humble delivery van. Such is the case with the Vision, a Mercedes-Benz concept van recently unveiled in Stuttgart, Germany. The sleek, slab-walled hauler revolutionizes the van itself, plus virtually every step of the delivery process.
The Vision Van is the pretty face of what Daimler has dubbed its adVANce initiative—a project that looks to evolve Mercedes-Benz from a simple van manufacturer into a supplier of holistic system solutions. And Mercedes is mainly focused on what the industry calls the “last mile,” those delivery services to business and home.
First, the Vision Van will be zero emission—powered by a 75-kW system boasting a 168-mile range. While no definitive plans have been announced for a production EV van, Mercedes-Benz recently has made great commitments to the zero-emission powertrain (including four plug-in EVs by 2020), and the van segment is sure to follow. The reasons for an EV powertrain in this segment are numerous: meeting government mandates on fuel efficiency and emissions; the improvement of our urban air quality; the elimination of noise pollution; and access to inner-city zones where internal combustion engines are not allowed for air-quality reasons. The EV architecture also allows Benz designers to maximize the “Cargo Space Index” (cargo bay length/vehicle length) by 10 percent. This means you get a larger cargo area with a shorter van.
Other engineering evolutions include a fully automated and intelligent cargo area. Automated robot handlers load the space up seamlessly, and the intelligent space management system makes deliveries a breeze—when you arrive at the destination, it selects the correct package and moves it to a small portal so the driver can quickly scoop it up for delivery.
While this system marks the Vision’s lofty intentions, Benz’s Silicon Valley Innovation Hub (there are other Hubs in Berlin and Stuttgart) is pioneering a similar system for production vans. The new shelves feature LED tiles that light up to tell the driver exactly where the package is so he won’t waste time searching the entire van. When he arrives at the delivery location, the van tells him which door to open and then lights up the exact tile so he knows where to find the package. This beats scouring through a dark van with your iPhone flashlight, which is frightfully common according to Benz research.
While these innovations are handy, and will eliminate much wasted time in loading, Tetris-stacking and finding packages—it is Mercedes’ collaborations with two tech startups that make the actual delivery a scene out of Star Wars.
The Vans & Robots and Vans & Drones projects aim to optimize the last stage of the “last mile” process: actual delivery to the consignee. Teaming up with a startup called Starship for the former, the vans will carry six vacuum cleaner-looking robots that will roll down a ramp and deliver the packages to someone’s door.
Vans & Drones finds Merc teaming with another startup, Matternet, to deliver packages via drones. The drones use the Vision Van’s roof as a launching pad, honing in on a beacon, so they know where to land. This system works best in areas like construction sites where there is a constant need for supplies, expected and not. But it would also excel for medical supply deliveries or even roadside assistance.
Overall, it is the Vision Van’s unprecedented level of connectivity that makes it exceptional. Adapting the Internet of Things into the automotive space, the Vision Van (and to a lesser extent, future production vans) seeks to become a hub of intelligence in the delivery industry. Mercedes executives say this level of standardization, modularity, and simplicity is critical with the “last mile.” Also, the intelligent handling of the cargo area will lessen the training needed; a key component in an industry with so much labor turnover.
“With this Vision Van, we implemented all these great ideas together, to support our customers in the future when it comes to the last mile,” Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, said. Of course, it’s not just deliveries—there are countless other areas where these innovative B2B connectivity solutions will become industry standards.
Photo Credit: © 2016 Mercedes-Benz