Achim Kampker was quite frustrated. The engineering professor had brought the shiny prototype of an all-electric car to the International Automotive Exhibition (IAA) 2011 in Frankfurt – the largest automotive show in the world. But nobody really took much note. Then German chancellor Angela Merkel visited the StreetScooter booth. She liked what she saw. “Well done, carry on,” she told the academic.

The professor at RWTH Aachen University had a mission: He wanted to show that it was possible to construct and build a functional and affordable all-electric transport vehicle for city deliveries. But none of the big car manufacturers in Germany was interested.

Seeing the light

One man, however, took note: Jürgen Gerdes, Board Member, Post - eCommerce - Parcel, Deutsche Post DHL Group. He knew that sooner or later he would need electric delivery vehicles to cope with emissions problems in cities. So why not talk to this professor who was audacious enough to present the prototype at the largest car trade show in the world? “Gerdes liked the general idea but said he needed a different model,” says Achim Kampker. So StreetScooter started to work on a delivery vehicle. 

As production engineer, Kampker had a totally different strategy than the car specialists: Instead of starting with the product itself, he looked around for what was already available and checked how it could be combined to create the delivery vehicle Deutsche Post DHL was interested in. “We didn’t develop a single new part for the planned new delivery vehicle,” says Kampker. “Instead, we bought what was already available on the market – and focused on developing a production strategy that would enable them to produce the van quickly, efficiently and without the huge capital expenditure usually associated with new car models.”

So within just two years and for one-tenth of regular development costs, he managed to present several prototypes to Jürgen Gerdes. The final version was a van named StreetScooter Work and was exactly what was needed. A robust, simple vehicle, constructed exactly to the specifications of efficient mail and parcel delivery – and at a cost comparable to that of a non-electric van. 

Win-win

The secret sauce was “close cooperation and invaluable input from all sides,” says Achim Kampker, now CEO of StreetScooter GmbH at Deutsche Post DHL Group. “The first model – the StreetScooter Work – was based on proven electric drive technology and expert insights from Deutsche Post DHL couriers. That way, we not only had a state-of-the-art motor with a maximum range of 80 kilometers, we also had a vehicle that met the precise needs of the people who would be driving it. A win-win situation for everyone.”

Gerdes knew he had a winner: In 2014, Deutsche Post DHL took over the company and its production operation, and developed it into a full-blown van factory. By that time, 50 pilot vehicles had been built and were deployed all over Germany. The results were encouraging, so Deutsche Post DHL decided to switch the whole mail and parcel fleet in Bonn, Germany, to electric vehicles. The goal was to make the city a model for carbon-free delivery. “It was a world first, and at the time we hoped to serve as a role model for other cities and regions,” says Gerdes. “By the end of 2015, we had over 140 electric vehicles on the road, which lowers our carbon emissions by over 500 metric tons per year.”

So in 2016, the StreetScooter was equipped with a stronger engine and the latest lithium-ion battery technology. Dubbed the Work L model, it has an eight-cubic-meter cargo hold and can handle as many as 150 parcels with a maximum load capacity of 1,000 kilograms. Further complementing its energy capacity, as announced at the end of 2017, StreetScooters will also be partially equipped with batteries from BMW in the future.

Although initially planned to solve the carbon-free transport needs of Deutsche Post DHL, many other companies with goods to deliver soon took notice. Few existing manufacturers produced electric vehicles with the relatively small range but large hold capacity needed for delivery vehicles, and demand from third parties soon started to slowly increase: In 2017, the company decided to double the existing capacity from 10,000 to 20,000, built another plant in North Rhine-Westphalia and began selling to outside companies. “The large demand for the StreetScooter and our own ambitious climate protection goals have encouraged us to further expand our commitment in the area of electromobility and to also make our expertise available to others,” says Gerdes.

 

Smart cars

To further expand the StreetScooter family, the company also decided to build another model large enough to hold over 200 parcels and ­deliver them over a range of 80 to 200 kilometers on a single charge. The StreetScooter Work XL, produced in cooperation with Ford, will be used to support the urban parcel delivery service in Germany. Another major step is to move into autonomous trucks:  In October 2017, DHL partnered with U.S. chipmaker NVIDIA and German auto supplier ZF to build trucks that can drive by themselves. The goal at first is not to replace the person at the wheel, but to help them work more efficiently. Thus, the delivery truck could park itself once the delivery person has already left to deliver the parcel, and follow autonomously in their tracks while the delivery person is moving to the next door. At first, this would only be tested in special areas where autonomous driving is allowed. After that, it could be rolled out further.

DHL announced that its goal of building 5,000 StreetScooters for 2017 had been reached by November, though it has not said how many of the vehicles will be outfitted with the new self-driving technology. That will include sensors, video cameras, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and radar from ZF. The data will be analyzed by NVIDIA’s latest chip and inform ZF’s ProAI self-driving system. The goal is to teach the artificial intelligence embedded in the systems to navigate along the route DHL drivers take each day. But whether the vans are driven by delivery people or not, the road ahead looks interesting for StreetScooter – and free of obstacles. —  Margaret Heckel 

Published: January 2018

Image: DHL