Pandemic e-commerce spurs race for electric delivery vans

Tesla’s new electric Semi truck is unveiled during a presentation in Hawthorne, California. (Reuters)
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Updated 10 September 2020

Pandemic e-commerce spurs race for electric delivery vans

  • Development delays at Tesla do nothing to dissuade firms that smart vehicles are the future of post pandemic world

DAVENPORT: Delivery fleet operators face regulatory pressure in California and other states to buy electric vehicles, but a surge in package deliveries thanks to lockdowns has major firms itching to switch to electric.

Operators such as UPS want computers on wheels that can harvest data and upgrade safety or autonomous features overnightt.

“For us, it’s not just about making the wheels turn with a zero-emission vehicle,” said Scott Phillippi, UPS’s senior director of fleet maintenance and engineering, who envisions “Tesla-like” vehicles in the company’s vast fleet. “It’s about an integrated-technology vehicle — and that’s really what we’re pushing for.”

With its ability to send wireless upgrades and fixes to customers’ electric cars, Tesla Inc. is seen as a bellwether. Firms like UPS want to harness that power to bring cost-saving, autonomous or safety measures to their fleets in real time.

If, for instance, a manufacturer developed a feature to prevent a truck from bumping into a loading dock, UPS could have it in tens of thousands of vehicles overnight to prevent expensive dents, Phillippi said. UPS, Amazon and other e-commerce delivery companies are both creating and shaping the emerging market for electric vans and trucks. Economics and competitive advantages created by data will drive the market for electric commercial vehicles.

Demand for electric commercial vehicles is accelerating partly as battery ranges improve dramatically while costs fall.

UPS has ordered 10,000 vans from UK startup Arrival, which is also working on self-driving technology. UPS has also reserved 125 of Tesla’s long-awaited Semi big rigs, 50 electric trucks from Workhorse Group Inc. — with an option for 950 more — and is testing electric trucks with California startup Xos.

Amazon ordered 100,000 electric vans last year from Rivian Automotive  and  1,800 more from Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz for its European fleet last month. While demand is soaring, supply is still virtually non-existent.

The pressure is rising for manufacturers to deliver. Startups such as Rivian and Arrival are racing with larger, established vehicle makers to get electric trucks into production.

Startup Xos Trucks, for example, has begun low-volume production of vans with Mexican auto supplier Metalsa, using a “modular” battery approach where battery packs are added based on a customer’s needs.

The years-long journey of one electric delivery vehicle startup, California-based Chanje Energy Inc, shows the challenges vehicle makers and their customers face creating a new industry on the fly.

California’s decision in June to require commercial truck manufacturers to sell a rising number of zero-emission vehicles, starting in 2024, drew attention to the market. But Bryan Hansel, Chanje’s CEO, said California’s mandate made little difference. The surge in e-commerce delivery caused by the coronavirus pandemic had already caused fleet operators to zero in on the 50 miles per gallon (80 kilometer per gallon) equivalent his vans offer over conventional diesel trucks.

Back in 2018, package delivery company FedEx ordered 1,000 Chanje vans. But Chanje had to pause while its battery supplier, China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology, updated its batteries’ energy density.

That boosted the range of Chanje’s vehicles to 150 miles. Its 2021 model should have a range of 200 miles, Hansel said, making it capable of handling 90 percent of US last-mile delivery routes — the “last-mile” of e-commerce where drivers drop off packages at individual consumers’ doors is typically the most expensive. But Chanje had other problems.

Like other fleet operators, FedEx is not a fueling company — conventional fleets send vehicles to gas stations — so it lacked chargers for a large fleet. So Chanje became an energy services company, building out overhead charging stations at 20 FedEx depots across California to charge all 1,000 vans it will deliver in 2021.

Chanje also stepped up its software and electronics capability. After drivers reported vehicles would roll backward if they took their foot off the accelerator on a hill, it spent four weeks rewriting the code with a software fix. Then, according to Hansel, the company “just flashed it over the wire to every truck we’ve ever built.”


Taps and reservoirs run dry as Moroccan drought hits farmers

Updated 22 October 2020

Taps and reservoirs run dry as Moroccan drought hits farmers

  • The problems caused by increasingly erratic rainfall and the depletion of groundwater are growing every year in Morocco

RABAT: Two years of drought have drained reservoirs in southern Morocco, threatening crops the region relies on and leading to nightly cuts in tap water for an area that is home to a million people.

In a country that relies on farming for two jobs in five and 14 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the problems caused by increasingly erratic rainfall and the depletion of groundwater are growing every year.

In the rich citrus plantations of El-Guerdan, stretching eastward from the southern city of Agadir, more than half of farmers rely on two dams in the mountains of Aoulouz, 126 km away, to irrigate their trees.

However, that water has been diverted to the tourist hub of Agadir, where mains water has been cut to residential areas every night since Oct. 3 to ensure taps in households did not run entirely dry.

“The priority should go to drinking water,” Agriculture Minister Aziz Akhannouch said in parliament last week.

In El-Guerdan, Youssef Jebha’s crop of clementine oranges has been compromised by reduced water supply, he said, which affects both the quality of fruit and the size of the harvest.

“The available ground water is barely enough to keep the trees alive,” said Jebha, who is head of a regional farmers’ association.

“Saving Agadir should not be at the expense of El-Guerdan farmers,” he added, speaking by phone.

‘We hope for rain’

El-Guerdan is not alone in facing drought. Morocco’s harvest of cereals this year was less than half that of 2019, meaning hundreds of millions of dollars of extra import costs.

Despite lower production, Moroccan exports of fresh produce have risen this year by 8 percent. 

Critics of the government’s agricultural policy say such sales are tantamount to exporting water itself, given the crops use up so many resources.

A report by Morocco’s social and environmental council, an official advisory body, warned that four-fifths of the country’s water resources could vanish over the next 25 years.

It also warned of the risks to social peace due to water scarcity. In 2017, 23 people were arrested after protests over water shortages in the southeastern city of Zagora.

In January the government said it would spend $12 billion on boosting water supply over the next seven years by building new dams and desalination plants.

One $480 million plant, with a daily capacity of 400,000 cubic meters, is expected to start pumping in March, with the water divided between residential areas and farms.

Until then, “We hope for rain,” the agriculture minister said in parliament.

In El-Guerdan, the farmers are digging for water. A new well costs $20,000-30,000. However, “there is no guarantee water can be found due to the depletion of ground reserves,” said Ahmed Bounaama, another farmer.