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Why are so few electric vehicles used for online shopping deliveries?

UK retailers appear to be in the electric vehicle slow lane when it comes to online shopping deliveries, but changes are imminent

On 31 May 2018, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, launched a taskforce dedicated to boosting the infrastructure required to increase the number of electric vehicles across the capital.

It came after the Mayor’s Transport Strategy 2018 detailed a need for a “clear direction towards ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV)” following acceptance that the government’s previous diesel vehicle incentivisation drive for CO2 reduction actually had a reverse impact on air quality.

The in-depth document references multiple reasons why change to London’s transport network and infrastructure is required to meet its 2050 zero carbon city target, and it cited growth in e-commerce as a contributing factor to the growing number of cars on the road. There was a warning that, as London grows, the corresponding volume of freight and servicing trips – from the likes of retailers – will make the city’s eco goals harder to achieve.

With this in focus, it is perhaps no surprise the British Retail Consortium (BRC) is one of the organisations involved in the electric vehicle taskforce. Four months on from the initiative’s launch, the BRC says it’s too early to share research on the topic, but back in May its CEO, Helen Dickinson, showed retail’s willingness to be involved.

“Retailers take their responsibilities towards the environment seriously,” she said. “We welcome the launch of the electric vehicle infrastructure taskforce and look forward to engaging closely with its members.”

Retail hits the road

Delivery management technology provider MetaPack released comprehensive research into e-commerce and delivery earlier this year, detailing a number of consumer trends that could prompt retailers to increase their use of electric vehicles in the supply chain.

The Unboxing Europe’s future delivery landscape report, which analysed trends and developments expected to shape the e-commerce value chain of 2020, showed 27% of shoppers care a great deal about the environmental toll of their online deliveries.

Some 47% suggested they were conscious that online deliveries contributed to increased traffic congestion and carbon emissions, while 71% of consumers expressed a preference for a consolidated delivery approach by retailers and brands. The report claims retailers have a mandate from customers to “green up” their logistics.

Research shows 27% of shoppers care about the environmental toll of their online deliveries, 47% are conscious that online deliveries contribute to increased traffic congestion and carbon emissions, while 71% express a preference for a consolidated delivery approach by retailers and brands

Online grocer Ocado has been using electric vehicles in its delivery fleet for eight years, including last year’s partnership with Danish firm Tripl to trial the company’s carbon-neutral Urban Cargo Drive vehicle for home deliveries.

An Ocado spokesperson acknowledges that “a very tiny” percentage of the delivery fleet runs on electricity, but the company continues to work on projects in the background to help improve its carbon footprint. It views itself as “a pioneer” in the advancement of electric vehicles in the retail space.

Ocado has a stated aim to become the UK’s “most sustainable and environmentally-friendly supermarket”, and with 66% of its annual greenhouse gas emissions coming from its delivery fleet in 2017, clear savings can be made from introducing greener vehicles.

But as Ocado chief technology officer Paul Clarke said at a recent tech event run by Retail Week and World Retail Congress in London, electric vehicles are just one part of a technological, smart city push he believes is required to improve society.

“The future of mobility is about a smart, distributed, interconnected ecosystem,” said Clarke. “It’s about vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen and possibly other clean fuels. It’s about advances in the enabling technologies, such as batteries, 5G, Lidar, microprocesses and many others. It’s about autonomy and the basket of AI [artificial intelligence] technologies that makes that possible.

“It’s also about the intersection, collaboration and orchestration of all manner of different autonomous machines, including cars, delivery vehicles, drones and robots – and sitting on top of this mesh network or ecosystem of autonomy will be a host of smart services.”

Electric vehicles as a starting point

Although clearly holding a more grandiose vision about the future relationship between people and technology, Clarke acknowledges the advancement and increase in use of electric vehicles is an important strand to all that sits within his crystal ball.

And several major UK retailers, aside from Ocado, are exploring the use of e-vehicles in their delivery fleets. Those include frozen food grocer Iceland, which is early in that journey; supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, which has trialled using electric cargo bikes for its main online deliveries business; and Tesco, which first used the technology when working alongside manufacturer Modec in 2007.

Earlier this year, Asos started a partnership with Menzies Distribution-owned electric-only parcel delivery firm GNewt, but the collaboration soured in the summer when a flurry of complaints from consumers appeared on social media. Delays occurred on next-day orders for Asos customers in London’s congestion zone, where GNewt was deployed, prompting the retailer’s online customer service teams to issue an array of apologies.

The online fashion house declines to comment whether it is still working with GNewt after the issues in July and August. A common complaint from customers at the time centred on communication and inaccurate alerts about fulfilment times, highlighting consumers’ need for clarity supported by up-to-date systems.

A company that is responsible for more delivery vehicles on the road than most, Amazon, could soon be fulfilling orders with electric-powered transport. In July, it emerged that Amazon Logistics had bought 100 Mercedes-Benz eVito transit vans, which are due to be released to the UK market in 2019.

By the end of this year, Amazon Logistics will have eVitos in its fleet at its Bochum and Düsseldorf locations, according to Mercedes-Benz. “Furthermore, Amazon and Mercedes-Benz Vans are working with other partners on a wide-ranging operator concept for the Bochum facility,” it said. “Alongside the charging infra­structure, this covers parking space management and the automated capture of vehicle status.”

The eVito has been designed primarily for urban delivery traffic, with the German manufacturer saying its installed battery capacity of 41kWh delivers a usage range of around 150km – with full power restored to the van after six hours of charging.

Iceland (the country) in e-vehicle driving seat

Amazon’s timing of its electric fleet investment appears to be a case of waiting for the right vehicle to arrive on the market, and that’s exactly the situation that faced Icelandic online marketplace Aha, which runs a fully-electric delivery vehicle fleet in Reykjavik.

Aha, which is expected to generate revenue of $8m-$10m through its marketplace this financial year, selling from a range of 40,000-50,000 products supplied by 100+ partner resellers, has a commercial plan with sustainability at its core.

CEO Maron Kristofferson says that after trials of electric delivery vehicles started in 2014, it was a waiting game before the wider investment could be made.

“Our tactic is to take a fully environmentally-responsible approach. It is also cheaper to run electric cars, which should be enough reason for other businesses to go electric”
Maron Kristofferson, Aha

“We needed a car with range of 200km, and once that was available at the right price point, that was the car we were going to buy,” he says.

That car was the Renault Zoe, which was released to market last year. In the past 12 months, Aha has acquired 15 of those vehicles, and is on the lookout for larger electric vans to add to its burgeoning fleet.

Although Amazon and the Chinese marketplaces create competition for Aha in its home country, Aha is the largest Icelandic online marketplace, and Kristofferson says “thousands” of home deliveries are completed by his company every week. The fleet serves Reykjavik, but if Aha chooses to run its own delivery outside of the capital instead of using the national postal service, the CEO says it will be via electric vehicle.

“Both the founders and investors are on the same page with this – our tactic is to take a fully environmentally-responsible approach. It is also cheaper to run electric cars, which should be enough reason for other businesses to go electric,” he says.

Aha is also at an advanced stage of using drones for online deliveries in Reykjavik, and Kristofferson says the retailer is looking how to sync its Flytrex-made drones with the Renault Zoe delivery system, enabling orders to navigate rush-hour traffic by air to reach a person in an electric vehicle, who can then complete the final mile.

Electrifying UK retail

In the London Mayor’s Transport Strategy 2018 report, the ULEVs listed as suitable for improving air quality are battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles, range-extended electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

The UK’s retail industry is trialling or has trialled all of these models, but questions around a lack of electric charging stations, general infrastructure and battery performance in the rain persist. Kristofferson argues against that theory, saying his company has mastered using electric vehicles in very cold, snowy conditions.

“You would have thought it might be electricity prices in Iceland that permits us to make our fleet completely electric, but they are not too different from the UK,” he states, although he acknowledges Aha’s delivery journeys tend to contain four to eight orders, which is fewer than the typical UK grocer.

“I have a sense that the UK is more prepared for this than Iceland,” he says, adding that retailers might be overestimating the need for charging stations, claiming Milton Keynes, where he lives when in the UK, might have more in place than the whole of Iceland.

“We have charging stations at the office so we can charge 10 cars at a time, and that’s enough because we don’t drive the cars at night. It’s much cheaper to buy the stations ourselves than drive to stations operated elsewhere – we just plug them in at the HQ,” says Kristofferson.

Figures from the UK’s Department for Transport in May showed there were 143,918 electric vehicles on the road in the UK at the time, and around 2,000 standard charging points across London. The city’s mayor has promised at least 150 Transport for London-funded rapid charge points will be in place by the end of 2018, and he wants electric charging stations similar to petrol stations around the city.

Moves are clearly being made to cater for electric vehicles and retailers are testing the new technology available, although appear cautious about their plans. Iceland’s Aha has proved large retailers can run their fleets on nothing but electricity, and continues to shout about it.

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