By IOL Motoring Staff

Stuttgart, Germany - Used to be a van was a box on wheels with an engine at one end and all it did was carry goods (and sometimes people as well) from A to B. Today a van is more like a mobile distribution centre, permanently connected online to its base, its customers and the internet of things.

Which is why the van division of Mercedes-Benz Vans has come up with a strategic strategic future initiative for the transport industry it calls 'adVANce'. It's focused on its customers' changing requirements in the face of urbanisation, growing e-commerce, intelligent networking between technologies and the increase in platform-based business models.

Mercedes-Benz Vans boss Volker Mornhinweg, speaking on Thursday at the Van Innovation Campus in Stuttgart, said it was developing from a vehicle manufacturer into a provider of system solutions, evolving the conventional van into “an intelligent, interconnected data centre on wheels”.

With more people living in cities - it's estimated that by 2030 two thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas - and ordering everyday items such as food online, demand for same-day delivery or delivery within an hour was increasing rapidly, he said.

Vision Van

But this isn't all future pie in the sky - Mornhinweg also presented the pure electric Vision Van study, aimed at streamlining the all-important 'last mile' of delivery. Powered by a 75kW electric motor, it has a range of 80-270km, depending on the application, enough to keep it humming around the inner city all day. And it's almost silent, so it can make deliveries at night in restricted or residential areas, when traffic is much lighter.

It's the first van to connect all the people and processes involved online, from the distribution centre to the customer, the first with an automated cargo space and the first to use drones for doorstep delivery, so that driver can stop once in a residential area and deliver multiple packages by drone - even if the customer's not home - instead of having to find parking at each address, get out and walk the final few metres.

Three key fields of innovation

The first is, of course, the internet of things. Mercedes-Benz Vans is developing a telematics unit for vans that processes data about the trip status, where the van is and how heavily the van is loaded, and sends it to the distribution manager, so that he can change the schedule to cope with shifting priorities 'on the fly'.

Another application is intended for service vehicles such as mobile workshops, managing inventory, ordering replacement parts and delivering them to the right bin in the back of the van overnight, while the driver is off duty.

The second focal point is on hardware-based solutions. The average van driver shifts an average load of 180 items around at least 10 times on a trip, in order to get out the parcel he needs at a given stop.

Mercedes-Benz is working on a system of purpose-built, pre-packed pallets, where the packages needed for a trip are picked off the shelf automatically and packed on to the pallet in reverse order of delivery. Then, when the van comes in to the distribution centre, the empty pallet is rolled out and a pre-packed pallet rolled in, reducing turnaround time from hours to seconds.

Once back on the road, the system tells the driver exactly where on the pallet the next delivery item is and makes sure it can be reached without having to move anything else, for delivery either by the driver, by a drone or a self-driving robot trolley - and yes, Mercedes-Benz Van has some engineering geeks working on those too.

The third field of interest is van-sharing. If people can call up a ride online, why shouldn't parcels do the same thing, argues Mornhinweg - even if that means taking a completely new approach to leasing, rental and sharing models, tailoring them to the needs of van customers.

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