While most of the rest of the world talks about electric vehicles (EVs) in terms of passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers, a small group of engineers and designers is focusing on an entirely different market: last-mile delivery of consumer goods. Those engineers and designers are relying heavily on composite materials in their pursuit of an EV that will be attractive to big retailers, the U.S. Postal Service, and other last-mile players.
Imagine the next generation of postal trucks with shells made primarily of composite panels. Likewise, delivery vans belonging to some of the biggest commercial fleets in the U.S. could be powered by electric motors made possible by the lower weight of composite boxes and bodies. It is quite possible that composite delivery trucks may actually be in your neighborhood in the very near future.
The Last-Mile Dichotomy
Last-mile delivery is one of the hottest markets in logistics right now. As companies compete to get consumer goods into the hands of customers as quickly as possible, giants like Amazon and Walmart are desperately looking for effective delivery solutions that do not break the bank. But there is more to the issue than the bottom line.
According to a great article published by Composites Manufacturing Magazine, last-mile delivery vehicles built on internal combustion engines contribute significantly to pollution. It’s not that these vehicles are inherently worse, it is just that last-mile driving is a lot of stop-and-go – the very kind of driving that increases urban pollution.
The dichotomy of last-mile delivery is one of getting goods into the hands of consumers quickly without spending a ton on fuel. Eliminate fuel consumption and you do two things: reduce the cost of delivery and mitigate the polluting effects of last-mile delivery. Enter the EV.
The Perfect Solution
In the eyes of some, the EV is a perfect solution for the challenges facing last-mile delivery enterprises. EVs do not directly contribute to air pollution. They also eliminate the need for costly fuel. Thus, they kill two birds with one stone. And yet, even what seems to be a perfect solution does have its own issues.
Range has always been a problem for EVs. It still is, even though battery technology has improved significantly over the last five years. So vehicle designers have to keep the weight of last-mile delivery vehicles as low as possible. Carbon fiber and other composites are the key, according to Rock West Composites.
Take your average box truck. The box itself is generally made with a core of plywood and structural aluminum supports covered by a fiberglass panel. It is a design that has worked well for decades. But manufacturers can further reduce the weight of a delivery truck’s box by substituting the wood and aluminum core with a composite honeycomb or sandwich panel.
The same design could be used for delivery vans as well. Make the underlying structure and cab out of aluminum and steel as normal, but fashion the cargo area from composite materials. That would reduce the weight of the vehicle and increase the range of its batteries.
Already on the Way
According to Composites Manufacturing Magazine, a number of companies pursuing the last-mile delivery challenge are already making good headway. UPS has already put some 50 electric delivery trucks on the road, and one of the companies responsible for designing those trucks is also pursuing the contract for the next generation of USPS vehicles.
It appears as though electric delivery trucks with composite boxes are already on the way. Maybe they will begin arriving in your neighborhood in the very near future.