Last year, DHL announced its commitment to net-zero emissions for its logistics operations by 2050, and the company has been slowly making the switch to hybrid and electric vehicles for years. But it’s the odd mix of delivery vans in the company’s fleets that proves automakers have been overlooking the opportunity to develop new vehicles for delivery services for far too long.
Last week, a representative for DHL, the international package shipping and logistics company, reached out to me about the company offering free rides in a Nissan Leaf to anyone in Manhattan this week, in an effort to build awareness around its zero-emissions commitment and its partnership with Formula E. I also had the opportunity to visit one of DHL’s courier facilities in Manhattan.
During my visit, a company representative gave me a tour of the three floors of operations, where the cargo arrives in large storage units from incoming international flights. The packages are sorted by hand onto two conveyer belts, which carry them to either the second or third floor, where they are again sorted by hand into the delivery vans assigned to their route.
This is where I got to see what DHL’s Manhattan fleet of vehicles looked like, and I was surprised to find a respectable hodgepodge of hybrid and EV vans. It was an odd mixture of 47 familiar hybrid bread trucks, 20 Azure vans, which are first-generation Ford Transit Connects that were modified to be electric, and 21 Zenith Motors electric cargo vans.
Additionally, according to a company representative, DHL has placed an order for 10 of the electric semi trucks currently in development from Tesla for supply chain operations, and DHL Freight in Europe is currently in a 24-month test of Daimler’s electric FUSO eCanter trucks.
It’s clear that, at least until recently, there was no clear option to satisfy DHL’s quest to expand its fleet of local electric delivery vans. In fact, back in 2014, DHL shopped around with multiple automakers with a request to develop electric delivery vans suitable for its needs, and were turned away.
This led DHL’s parent company, Deutsche Post, to buy EV startup StreetScooter and develop a small electric cargo van of its own in just 18 months. The StreetScooters have already joined fleets in Europe, where they’re also available for sale to other companies for just over $30,000, and DHL is working to increase production and introduce the van to the U.S. market.
This all begs the question as to why no automakers took DHL up on their request, or even began development of a platform suitable or even tailored for cargo applications on their own. And even for companies that have developed EV platforms and already have models on sale, including Tesla, Nissan, GM, Jaguar and BMW, none of these companies have a cargo van model available for fleets in the U.S., despite the USPS seeking replacements for its aging fleet of bread trucks and UPS actively seeking electric alternatives for its delivery services.
Following Deutsche Post DHL’s development of its StreetScooter van, Bloomberg reported former VW CEO Matthias Müller was annoyed that DHL did not work with the automaker on development of a vehicle.
DHL tends to order its vehicles on a year-to-year basis for now, but it’s not hard to imagine an automaker could easily work out a bigger contract, that is if DHL wasn’t already working on its getting its own van stateside now. Until then, the Zenith is currently the best packaging of range and cargo capacity for DHL’s large city routes, and a larger electric Ford Transit van model, which was developed with StreetScooter, is also on its way just in time for the retirement of the Azure models in 2020.
As automakers scramble to sign deals with companies developing ride-sharing fleets, like Jaguar and Waymo making a deal over 20,000 I-Pace crossovers, they all seemed to have overlooked the imminent overhaul of America’s delivery fleets. DHL has answered by making due with the partners it could find and just making its own damn van, so perhaps the opportunity is already lost.
If you’d like to take advantage of DHL’s free Manhattan Nissan Leaf rides this week, the rides are available for request via the DHL Mobility Quest phone app. On Thursday, the pickup location is on 5th Avenue between 26th and 27th Street, and on Friday, pickups are on 5th Avenue between 8th and 9th Street.