Game of drones: why going the 'last mile' is revolutionising how and why vans are made
As Mercedes-Benz unveils its brand new Sprinter in Dusseldorf this week, the van sector is facing interesting times.
Naturally, the new Sprinter, due here this summer, will meet all of the traditional requirements of van users, with the options of front, rear or all-wheel drive and a myriad of body lengths and heights to choose from.
But it's the tasks many of these vans will be put to that is evolving rapidly.
Take for instance the explosion in online shopping.
Almost seven out of 10 internet users in Europe made online purchases in the past 12 months. That's leading to complex challenges for delivery companies.
The final delivery to customers - known as the 'last mile' - remains the most complex and difficult part of the supply chain to optimise. As the number, sizes and densities of cities increase, delivery operations will become ever more complex, according to experts such as Dr Matthias Winkenbach, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Combined with increasing restrictions on allowing vehicles with high emissions and noise pollution levels into urban areas, he believes that E-commerce and on-demand consumerism pose major challenges to sustainable urban last-mile delivery.
That challenge is one that vehicle manufacturers are addressing by introducing new technologies that incorporate vans as an integrated part of the delivery process.
"We are developing from being a vehicle manufacturer into a supplier of holistic transport and mobility solutions," says Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.
A year ago, Mercedes-Benz Vans launched adVANce, a €500m investment into its strategic future initiative.
"The van of the future will be like a commercial hub on wheels," said Mr Mornhinweg at the time.
He painted a picture of the Mercedes-Benz van of the near future being able to communicate with drones and robots for parcel deliveries, having advanced telematics for B2B connectivity, and being an integrated cog in automated intelligent loading and delivery of goods.
The new Sprinter puts some of these concept ideas into reality. For instance, it will be capable of offering a range of networked services through Mercedes PRO connected services.
Telematic solutions such as flexible route planning will give fleet managers the ability to easily adapt or respond to changing priorities within their fleet by linking job data with vehicle availability.
Ensuring that grocery deliveries, ordered online, arrive as fresh as when they leave the supermarket is a challenge for food-delivery businesses.
That needs a refrigerated body that can be separated into different climate zones so that frozen food stays frozen and fresh vegetables stay chilled.
Intelligent loading solutions that enable the driver to immediately locate the package for delivery in the van help to reduce time spent stopped on busy streets.
Long a popular choice for passenger transport, the new Sprinter can facilitate on-demand ride sharing services, with the vehicle receiving and replying to the booking data that customers make via their smartphones, and adjusting its routes accordingly.
On the environmental front, Mercedes-Benz is also rolling out electric versions of its vans, especially suitable for urban deliveries. The smaller eVito can be ordered now, with an eSprinter coming in 2019.
We're not quite at the stage yet of drones flying to and from base station vans with our parcel deliveries.
But the days of the van being nothing more than a box on wheels is very much a thing of the past.