Electric Van Company Goes Bankrupt, but the Idea Behind It Is Solid

Electric delivery vans make even more sense than electric personal cars.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
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Brian Cooley
3 min read

The recent Chapter 7 failure of EV startup ELMS probably encouraged some electric vehicle haters to gloat, but electric last-mile delivery trucks remain the strongest immediate bet, to my mind, in electric vehicles.

The four biggest home delivery fleets in the US -- Amazon, UPS, FedEx and DHL -- know what the North American Council on Freight Efficiency predicts: An electric last mile van uses about $2,000 of energy a year compared to $10,000 a year in fuel, calculated at $2.98 a gallon. That wasn't enough to save ELMS from its financial ambiguities, alleged stock shenanigans and executive departures.

ELMS Class 1 van

The company offered a Class 1 urban delivery van with 110 miles of range at a base price of $28,000 and a larger Class 3 chassis that would normally be fitted with a cargo box offering 125 miles of range. Those range numbers would underwhelm any electric car buyer but are actually evidence of why electric delivery vans make sense: They can nail a major work role with easily attained range, dovetailing with many other traits of electrification beyond that.

Rewarding grunt

Delivery trucks need ample torque and put it to better use than reaching 60 mph in 2 seconds. Electric motors deliver almost all of their prodigious torque from 1 rpm while gas and even relatively torquey diesel engines have to be coaxed and revved into delivering peak torque.

UPS Arrival electric van

UPS tapped electric delivery van maker Arrival to start building its fleet of electric last mile trucks at local "microfactories" in the US, UK and Europe.


Good at going slow

There are few things less efficient than combustion engines, which use most of their fuel to generate waste heat rather than move the vehicle they're installed in, and slow, stop-and-go driving is combustion inefficiency at its worst. But electric powertrains are hardly phased by that driving pattern and remain efficient poking around town. To paraphrase Eric Schmidt, the fact that delivery vehicles have been powered by combustion engines is a bug in the course of automotive history. 

Routes kill anxiety

There's not much cause for range anxiety if you know exactly where you're going, down to the distance, number of turns, stops, traffic conditions and terrain; That kind of knowledge makes it clear if you'll have enough charge and is the kind of planning and analysis that's been part of local trucking for a long time. It's the opposite of the unpredictable driving we do (and imagine we'll do) with our personal cars. And while the charge analysis display on the dash of electric personal cars is just data art to most owners, it's highly significant to fleet operators. Electric delivery vans will make it home on a charge or not be sent out in the first place.

Frequent use is key

The high marginal cost of electrification or autonomy are best amortized by using the product as much as possible. Delivery vans work 8 to 12 hours a day rather than sitting parked 95% of their lives, their advanced features seldom used. Electric work trucks should return their investment faster than a Tesla Model S Plaid gets out of its own way.

ELMS van load floor

Low floors rate high 

Remember the last time you moved and how fatiguing it was loading things in and out of that truck? A low, flat load floor is a big deal on delivery trucks, served well by the flat, low-mounted batteries used by most electric vehicles. Dispensing with an engine and its drivetrain also eliminates the "doghouse" that often occupies the middle of the cab and can demand a design with an additional step up. Even one step saved getting in and out of the cab when a driver makes a stop can create a more pleasant, less fatiguing day and a little more appealing job. 

Comparison of electric and gas delivery cans

Even when gas was $2.98 a gallon the energy cost difference between electric and gas-engined last mile trucks was stark.


Delivery fleets get it

Amazon recently announced it would buy up to 100,000 electric vans from Rivian though the company will also source them from Ram after Jeff Bezos ribbed Rivian about delivering the vehicles. FedEx will only buy electric delivery vehicles by 2030. UPS has placed an order for 10,000 electric delivery vans deploying across the US, UK and Europe through 2024. And you might not have even known that a fifth of DHL's delivery van fleet is electric because it uses familiar-looking Ford Transits that are converted by Lightning eMotors.

It's not clear how much Americans will drive as we emerge from the pandemic but local delivery miles have a long way to grow. Doing that work with clean, quiet, economical last mile vehicles seems like the most obvious priority in the immediate future of electric vehicles.