This story appears in the November 14 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.
It may have been the flashiest vehicle on display at the 2016 IAA Commercial Vehicles Show.
The Mercedes-Benz “Vision Van” was sleek, modern and, with two drones on its roof, it immediately stood out among the 60 vehicles on display in Daimler Trucks’ exhibit hall area during the September event in Hanover, Germany.
While the electric-powered van was only a concept vehicle, executives positioned it as a key step forward for the company.
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No longer would they be just a manufacturer of vans, focused on fuel efficiency and safety benefits compared with competitors, said Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.
“We are focusing our attention beyond the vehicle on the entire value chain and business environment of our customers. We provide transport solutions for the digital age and evolve the van into an intelligent, interconnected data center on wheels,” Mornhinweg said.
Several days after the van was introduced at a press event just prior to the start of IAA, Mornhinweg and Stefan Maurer, head of future transportation systems, spent 45 minutes with a small group of trucking journalists, providing an up-close look at the van while sharing that larger “vision.”
Their message was somewhat similar to the direction of Amazon.com, which has taken significant strides to morph from an online retailer into a full-fledged transportation company, complete with its own aircraft, while experimenting with same-day and one-hour shipping options.
Mornhinweg and other Daimler executives cited the continued global population shift toward urban areas, along with the soaring online shopping sector. Add in customers’ interests in faster shipping options and growing inner-city restrictions on diesel engines, and the Vision Van was created.
It includes a telematics unit that collects and processes data on location and load, allowing for last-minute changes based on traffic or other conditions. The system also can immediately update route plans if last-minute parcel pickups need to be added.
Mercedes said the Vision Van is the first to feature a fully automated cargo space. Maurer estimated loading a cargo van manually could take two hours, compared with about 30 minutes for the Vision Van. At a delivery stop, shelving with sensors automatically identifies the needed packages, eliminating the need for the driver to get inside and search for them.
“The intelligent automation technology connects the entire process, from loading and transportation by road through to delivery to the consignee. This makes it easier for the deliverer to do business and rapidly reduces the delivery time for end customers,” Mornhinweg said.
According to Mercedes, parcel drivers on average need to rearrange packages 10 times while making deliveries within a residential area and schedule up to four minutes per stop.
Delivery times are further sped up through the use of the two drones on the roof. Mornhinweg said the drones can be automatically loaded through the roof and automatically deliver lightweight parcels to nearby residential locations while a driver simultaneously makes his or her delivery. LED lights on the van can signal when the drones are taking off.
Mornhinweg and Maurer deflected questions that do not yet have firm answers, such as drone costs and if a home would need to invest in a landing pad to receive drone packages. Instead, they emphasized how this concept van creates the path to more same-day deliveries while reducing emissions in congested cities from current levels.
The drones come from Matternet, a U.S.-based developer in which Mercedes has a minority stake. Earlier this year, Matternet developed unmanned aircraft systems for UNICEF that are being used to transport blood samples for HIV testing in Malawi.
The pre-IAA media event not only included a drone-flying demonstration but also a small Star Wars-like robot that came down the ramp of the Vision Van and theoretically could be used to more rapidly make deliveries alongside the driver and drones.
The Vision Van is part of Mercedes’ initiative known as “adVANce,” which includes a five-year investment of about 500 million euros focused on automation and robotics. There are already 200 employees working on projects including the Matternet drone project. ³