Waymo, the autonomous arm of Alphabet, which owns Google, said yesterday it was partnering with UPS to deploy an unannounced number of “self-driving” hybrid Chrysler Pacificas to deliver packages as part of a small-scale initiative in Arizona. The better news yesterday was that UPS was ordering 10,000 electric delivery trucks.
The UPS-Waymo tie-up, you could argue, is a bigger deal for Waymo than it is for UPS, since it provides Waymo with a fruitful new testing ground for its autonomous technologies. UPS, meanwhile, can see if the experiment goes anywhere without having a ton of skin in the game. There weren’t a whole lot of details released, but the cars will still include safety drivers.
The long-term play here—to eliminate drivers altogether—is kind of a bummer, but I’m pretty sure that reality is at least a decade away, if not longer, since this experiment will only shuttle packages from UPS Stores in greater Phoenix to a distribution hub in Tempe. The last mile of delivery—to one’s doorstep—still requires a human, as grim as that job may be in the Gig Economy.
Which means that instead of self-driving, delivery companies should focus on a more attainable (and socially beneficial) step forward, like what UPS is doing with its electric truck order. A British startup called Arrival said it will build 10,000 electric delivery trucks for UPS, while UPS will have an option for 10,000 more trucks if all goes well.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but before you scoff, you should consider that UPS’s total fleet of delivery vehicles is around 123,000, according to the company, including 10,000 that already use alternative fuels or other “advanced technology.” And so adding or replacing up to 20,000 of those vehicles with an electric vehicle represents a significant chunk. UPS will roll out the trucks across North America and Europe over the next four years.
And really, to me, seems like an obvious move, and also one that should’ve come a long time ago, not just for UPS but for pretty much any company that uses small trucks to make short deliveries. Range in urban areas isn’t much of an issue, and charging stations are reasonably prevalent. Arrival said the range would be around 155 miles on the 10,000 UPS ordered, or enough to cover a driver’s daily route in most urban areas, if UPS employee forums are anything to go by.
Patrick Bion, Arrival’s head of product, also said that the truck’s range and propulsion systems can be tweaked to UPS’s needs, according to Engadget.
“We have the ability to change the wheelbase,” Bion explained, “to add front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. We can also change the battery pack capacity so that the customer, if they only need 150 kilometers (90 miles) per day, doesn’t have to pay for a bigger battery that could theoretically do more.”
It looks, in UPS’s version, like this:
The main consternation with electric cars is that they, well, aren’t internal combustion-engined cars. They’re less fun, they’re quieter, their range isn’t great, and they don’t give off a thrilling whiff of gasoline. But all of those things make electric an almost ideal solution for box trucks and delivery trucks, since they don’t need to be fun, and cities would be a lot more livable without a bunch of loud and smelly delivery trucks banging around.
Given that delivery trucks these days are overrunning things at the moment, with no sign of stopping, the problem will only increase with urgency. The positive news is that the solution is sitting right in front of us.