General Motors siblings BrightDrop and Cruise Automation are talking about how driverless technology could fit with commercial vehicles like the electric vans BrightDrop will begin delivering to FedEx in December.
“Cruise is starting on ride-share, but they have investment from Walmart,” BrightDrop CEO Travis Katz told FreightWaves in an interview at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo last week in Long Beach, California.
“Walmart is in the delivery business so you can imagine their ideas there, and we’re in the delivery business. So I think what we’ve really started to talk about with the Cruise guys is what does the future of delivery look like and what’s the rule for autonomy?”
How the two would work together is the unanswered question. But coming out of GM, scaling a business would be easier than for a smaller company working solo.
“There’s a lot of problems still to be solved,” Katz zaid. “How do you really make this customer-centric and customer friendly? And how do you make it really seamless from the warehouse all the way to the front door?”
Focused on first deliveries
Before anything happens with Cruise, BrightDrop has to deliver the first tranche of 500 Class 3 EV600 electric vans and an electronically driven EP1 cargo box to FedEx Express in December. The vans are being built in Ingersoll, Ontario, the former assembly plant of the Chevrolet Equinox SUV.
GM announced BrightDrop virtually during the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
Like its parent company, BrightDrop has been affected by a shortage of microchips critical to automobile and commercial vehicles. But Katz said production is still running to target. GM’s supply chain expertise makes a huge difference.
“I don’t know if you’re a new company getting off the ground and you aren’t buying hundreds of millions of parts how you have the leverage,” Katz said. “I won’t say it’s not challenging for everyone, including GM. It’s challenging, but I think we’re well positioned to manage our way through it.”
The EV600 enters a segment with multiple big players, including Ford Motor Co.’s E-Transit electric van, Amazon-backed startup battery-electric Rivian and Workhorse Group, which is delivering small numbers of its C-1000 electric cargo van.
During a panel discussion at the ACT Expo, Katz said the EV600 would save the average fleet operator $7,000 a year versus a diesel-powered van.
Mum on demand specifics
“The amount of inbound demand we’re seeing for these vehicles is incredible,” Katz said. “It actually took everyone by surprise just how much demand there is, and [it has] caused us to rethink a little bit our manufacturing plans to make sure that we were ready and scaled to meet the demand.”
But he is silent beyond two customer announcements to date — the 500 EV600s to FedEx and the intent by fleet management company Merchants Fleet to take 12,600 of the battery-powered vans by 2023.
“A lot of companies have got out over their skis a little bit, talking probably too publicly about things that they probably should not be talking about,” Katz said. We’ve got super-exciting things I would love to be able to share. We’re not going to share them until we can share them in a way that’s really concrete.”
That’s either the typically conservative GM approach or wisdom taken from the experience of companies like electric pickup truck startup Lordstown Motors, which is under Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission scrutiny for allegedly inflating orders.
Leveraging other architectures
GM has a full-size van, sold as the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana, that serves a certain portion of the van market — plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades. The EV600 complements those vehicles but borrows little from other legacy GM vehicles, save for a few components.
The [EV600] itself is designed from the ground up for delivery,” he said, mentioning a low step-in height. “These guys get in and out of vans 150 times a day, so their knees wear out if you’re stepping high.”
The EV600 uses the Ultium battery platform and borrows from the battery-electric Hummer, now sold as a GMC model after being introduced in the early 2000s as a stand-alone brand. The electric van development time broke the Hummer’s record for speed to market.
“We were able to go even faster because we’re able to leverage a lot of what they’re doing,” Katz said.
BrightDrop is as much a software enterprise as it is a van manufacturer.
“All of our products are connected internet of things devices that allow fleet operators to have visibility, control and insights about what’s happening with their fleets in real time,” Katz said. “You can start to have real-time chain of custody, where it is in the delivery stage, how many touches it has had and who actually touched it.”
On charging, which is critical to up time for electric vehicles, BrightDrop is working with the GM Fleet organization to leverage a collaboration called Ultium 360, which includes infrastructure providers EVGo, In-Charge, Schneider Electric and Duke Energy.
“The idea is that we’re partnering with these companies to make this transition seamless and easy. So we are going to be bringing in these partners early on in the conversations with customers,” Katz said.
A grander proposition
The EV600 is only part of what BrightDrop considers an ecosystem around first-to-last-mile delivery. Katz won’t discuss the take rate for the EP1 among those interested in the van, but he said it is significant.
“When you talk to companies that are doing last-mile delivery, the growth in e-commerce is breaking their model, and so they need a lot of help,” he said.
“We literally had our design team riding around on delivery routes with drivers to study everything: the ergonomics, where are they staging their package before they jump off, how are they getting in? I think that focus on this use case of delivery is something that I’m not sure anyone else has done before.”