The last mile. This crucial leg of any delivered product is the make-or-break mile. The USPS, UPS, FedEx, and others long had a lock on the last-mile business and have pretty much been able to dictate the cost of that mile on their own terms. In order to wrest control of that costly mile away from these companies, mega-seller Amazon has rolled out a fleet of its own vans. Now, in a bid to further reduce costs, retain drivers, and reduce the company’s carbon footprint, Amazon has contracted Rivian to produce 100,000 electric delivery vans by 2030, with the first 10,000 hitting the road by the end of 2022. Here are a dozen interesting factoids about the giant, smiling blue whales that have already started rolling out and will become increasingly ubiquitous starting later this year, getting a slight jump on the Ford E-Transit, Bollinger Deliver-E van, and GM’s recently announced Ultium-powered BrightDrop delivery van.
Three Sizes Fit All
Rivian is developing three vans capable of carrying 500, 700, or 900 cubic feet of packages. All share the same stand-up interior height. The smallest one is narrower than the larger two and is as roomy as today’s mainstream Mercedes-Benz Sprinter or Ford Transit delivery vans. The largest has roughly the same turning circle diameter as those smaller vans, to maintain its easy maneuverability. The electric skateboard chassis is relatively easy to stretch or shrink in length or width, and modular design allows for considerable commonality among the three vans.
The Prime vans will share their basic electrical and network architecture, ECUs, and battery packs with the Rivian R1 models. Its basic single-motor e-axle drive units come from the entry-level Rivian R1 products. But there’s enough difference between these skateboards that they will be assembled on their own line, separate from the R1. The body build and final assembly will also occur on a separate “low-feature-content” assembly line, though common body and paint shops will handle both.
Steel-Intensive Body and Frame
Whereas the fancy-pants Rivian R1s use an aluminum skateboard architecture and mostly aluminum body, the RPV will feature a steel body on a steel ladder-frame skateboard.
Porpoising Through the Paintshop
To ensure the steel body is fully rust-proofed, it gets a full-emersion trip through the RoDip electro-coat paint-primer tank. The best way to get all the air bubbles out so paint coats every nook and cranny in this process is for the body to summersault through the tank, turning end-over-end. To allow these gigantic vans to make such a maneuver required a tank that would have been too tall to fit inside the roof of the plant, so the paint tank had to be sunk into the floor.
Because these vans are going to become ubiquitous across cities and neighborhoods nationwide, and the design is meant to remain unchanged for years, it was important that it look friendly. We saw several scale clay models and can attest that this final design is probably the friendliest. The team is hopeful that a Prime van might soon become a beloved character in a future Cars movie installment from Disney’s Pixar.
Focused on the Driver
A big problem faced by current last-mile delivery providers is driver turnover. Spending summer days in an un-air-conditioned van driving around with the sliding door open is unpleasant, unsafe, and doesn’t encourage retention. So the RPV includes a climate control system, a comprehensive suite of safety features, best-in-class lighting, a roomy cargo area, and a driver-friendly touchscreen infotainment system. Special attention has been paid to the ergonomics of climbing in and out of the van, optimizing things like entry steps that don’t become dangerously slippery when wet or slush-covered and the shape and placement of the assist handles, making them easy to use while carrying packages. As chief executive officer RJ Scaringe points out, whereas many manufacturer product planning departments have to guess and infer the wants and needs of their end-users, Rivian was able to speak directly with thousands of veteran Amazon drivers to determine precisely what would help make their jobs easier and more rewarding.
Heated and cooled seats (yes, some vans will incorporate a jump seat used for driver training) and heated armrests boost the driver’s comfort level while reducing the need to fully heat all the air in the large front compartment—especially when the sliding passenger-side door has to open and close frequently. The windshield is defrosted via a grid of tiny wires, which is more efficient than creating and blowing hot air on it.
To ensure driver safety, there’s a conventional front-hinged door on the driver’s side. This design provides vastly better side-impact crash protection than a sliding door can (especially if it gets left open). Most deliveries will be made via the passenger-side pocket/sliding door, while the roll-up rear door generally gets used for loading the van. To protect vulnerable road users in the neighborhoods where Amazon vans live, a full suite of radar, lidar, and camera sensors provide forward-collision alert, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keeping assist. Rivian and Amazon do not envision enabling full autonomy in the foreseeable future.
During the initial design phase, the team thought well outside the box, imagining such features as using a helicopter drone launched through the roof to deliver packages from the van to the doorstep, recharging the drone onboard using a system that’s not unlike the vehicle-to-vehicle e-charger that has been proposed to allow a well-charged Rivian to play good-Samaritan and supply some charge to an EV that might not otherwise reach a charging station. Such a feature is not currently scheduled for inclusion in the first 100,000 Rivian Prime vans.
Rivian envisions remaining fully connected to all its civilian and commercial vehicles, monitoring vehicle health and maintenance needs to be able to proactively reach out to users whenever maintenance or repairs are needed. This connectivity will enable Amazon to monitor the location, state of charge, speed, etc. of every vehicle in its fleet.
Biggest Van Needs Smallest Battery
At least for the first few years, all Rivian Prime delivery vans will get a single battery pack that’s nominally rated for a 150-mile range (its kWh rating has not yet been announced, nor has Rivian specified which van achieves that rating). The company is open to providing larger or smaller packs for certain targeted delivery routes.
Here’s something that may strike anyone not in the logistics biz as counterintuitive: the jumbo 900-cubic-foot van is the most likely candidate to receive a much smaller battery pack. Here’s why: Amazon doesn’t deliver many transmissions or anvils—its packages are typically bulky but light. The van and its battery are sized to suit the route. The routes requiring the biggest vans are the ones in the most densely packed cities, where a stop at a high-rise apartment block may empty several shelves, and a handful of such stops, each a short distance apart, can empty the van. New York City shifts sometimes see less than 10 miles of use, and that doesn’t require many kilowatt-hours of battery juice.
When Will Rivian Prime Vans Hit Your Neighborhood?
Early pilot build and validation vehicles are entering limited-service now, with full-volume production beginning this fall, targeting the first 10,000 deliveries by late 2022. The roll-out will commence in 15 major markets in 2021, after which every major service area currently employing gas-powered delivery vehicles will begin getting Rivian Prime vans. The van is designed to handle any itinerary in Amazon’s “route tree.” Every new Amazon delivery facility has been built with electrical service capable of supporting numerous Level-2 chargers, and existing buildings are being retrofitted.