Frankfurt, Germany - Logistics giant Deutsche Post has quietly designed and made its own electric delivery van, exploiting sweeping changes in manufacturing technology that could upend the established order in the auto industry.
For the moment, Deutsche Post is using the vehicles itself to meet growing demand for e-commerce deliveries without adding to air pollution in German cities, replacing conventional Volkswagen vans.
But having decided to go it alone with the project - upsetting VW “beyond measure” - the group will soon decide whether to start selling the Streetscooter model and join those competing directly with established carmakers.
Advances in manufacturing software are allowing the likes of Deutsche Post, Google and start-ups to tap suppliers to design, engineer and test new vehicle concepts without hiring thousands of engineering staff or investing billions in tooling and factories.
Technical and engineering know-how among this network of suppliers has blossomed since traditional manufacturers began farming out research and development to keep their own costs down after the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
Today, suppliers produce components which make up 80 percent of a car, up from about 56 percent in the 1980s, creating a manufacturing system which is being used by new entrants such as Google for its driverless cars.
Deutsche Post says it took this route when the conventional vehicle makers turned down requests to build the electric vans in what by their standards were limited numbers.
Win Neidlinger, director of business development at Deutsche Post's carmaking arm Streetscooter, explained: “We are purposely not reinventing the wheel. We do not produce a single component ourselves. Everything comes from a supplier.”
Deutsche Post already has 1000 of the bright yellow vans on the road, and production has been raised to 5000 vehicles a year, with the possibility of adding a second shift.
Streetscooter used a commercial software programme to talk to a network of 80 suppliers including Bosch, which provides the electric drivetrain, and Hella which makes the headlights.
Windchill, which costs €300-€1000 (R4600-R15 400) per user per year, is used by 90 percent of the top 50 automotive companies including Continental, ZF , Volkswagen, Audi, MAN, Hyundai and Ferrari.
With e-commerce orders rising, Deutsche Post knew increasing inner city delivery trips would mean more pollution unless it switched to zero-emission vehicles.
Deutsche Post board member Juergen Gerdes said: “We scanned the market. There was no electric van available so we decided to build our own.”
Electric vehicles - which are far simpler in design than combustion engined cars - require only a tenth of the staff during assembly, dramatically lowering production costs.
“We designed it as a tool,” Neidlinger said, “so the fit and finish does not need to be as good as in a passenger car.”
The vans are designed to last 16 years, stay in use for six days a week and for 10 hours at a time. They need some particularly robust components, such as doors that can be opened and closed up to 200 times a day.
Deutsche Post will decide whether to sell its vans on the open market by the end of 2016.
Volkswagen not amused
Volkswagen, whose Caddy vans are being phased out by Deutsche Post in favour of Streetscooters, is among the established carmakers unamused by missing out on the project.
“I am annoyed beyond measure,” said VW chief executive Matthias Mueller. “Why did Post did not talk to our commercial vehicles division about doing something similar?”
Industry analysts Christoph Stuermer said Deutsche Post had shown the motor industry's shortcomings.
“They have opened up a new segment,” he said, “one which the conventional carmakers have not discovered because they are too hamstrung by their own processes.”
In September Deutsche Post presented a new model, StreetScooter Work L, which has eight cubic metres of space to carry as many as 150 parcels weighing a total of 1000kg.
Gerdes said the switch to electric motors made the total cost of ownership no more expensive than for equivalent conventionally-powered vans. For commercial reasons he wouldn't put a price on the Streetscooter, but said: “It did not cost billions to develop and produce. You will not believe how cheap it is to make.”