Meet the Mercedes-Benz Vision Van concept, a high-tech re-imagination of the humble delivery van. It's powered by a 100-hp electric motor and has a range of up to 168 miles. Inside is an automated smart rack system that's preloaded in the warehouse and loaded into the van as a complete unit. On the roof are two drones, each capable of carrying a 4.4-pound load six miles to a delivery address and returning to land on the roof of the van, fully autonomously. There's no steering wheel inside. No pedals, either. Everything is controlled via a tiny joystick on the left-hand side of the cabin.
The Vision Van concept is the showbiz part of an ambitious strategic initiative underway within Daimler to radically transform its van business away from merely designing, engineering, making and selling hardware - that is, vans - to being a full-service mobility provider. Called adVANce - geddit? - this initiative involves Daimler working with partners such as software engineers at Silicon Valley startups, to ride sharing services and logistics specialists to create what Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, sees as a completely new business model for his division.
"The van of the future should know what's loaded inside it, where it's headed, and when it's expected," says Mornhinweg. "It will be like a commercial hub on wheels, like a node in a digital network of the Internet of Things." Business concepts under development include sophisticated vehicle and logistics management apps, a van sharing service owned and operated by Mercedes-Benz, and the use of small, wheeled robots and load-carrying drones to facilitate "last mile" delivery services.
Vans aren't a sexy part of the auto business. But vans can make automakers a lot of money. Mercedes-Benz' van business is a case in point. Last year it sold a record 321,000 vehicles, generating almost $13 billion in revenue. For the first six months of this year Daimler's van business boasted an 11-percent return on sales, a huge margin compared with that of the sedan, sports car, and SUV businesses. As more and more consumers shop online - global e-commerce turnover is forecast to exceed $3,000 billion in 2018 - Daimler wants Mercedes-Benz vans to be an integral part of the delivery system required to support that growth.
The Vision Van concept's electric drive system is therefore designed to allow silent, emission-free operation in crowded cities. Getting rid of the internal combustion engine and gas tank - replaced by an electric motor at the rear axle, and batteries under the load floor - also allows for a 10-percent increase in cargo capacity for the same vehicle footprint. Loading a delivery van typically takes about 90 minutes. Installing pre-loaded smart racks takes five minutes, and the system's ability to ensure the right package is in the right place within the van at the right location saves further time during the delivery route.
Ultimately, says Mornhinweg, the forthcoming generation of electric-powered, hyper-connected smart vans will probably lead the integration of fully autonomous vehicles into the existing road infrastructure. As the Vision Van concept shows, in the hard-nosed, dollar-driven world of the delivery van, there's no sentimentality about the need for a steering wheel.