Interestingly, the rendering of the delivery van released by Amazon (which has similar frontal styling to the Honda E) shows it branded with the firm’s Prime service. While specifics haven't been confirmed, it's likely the vans will be produced to Amazon’s specifications as a pure customer deal, and working with a small firm such as Rivian likely gives Amazon more control over that process. In doing so, it cements Rivian as a major player.
That also shows the possibilities created by electric ’skateboard’ chassis, which feature the batteries under the floors and motors at either end, making them far easier to place bespoke bodies on. The merits of that approach have already been shown by the likes of Volkswagen with its MEB platform, which is set to underpin everything from the ID 3 hatchback to the ID Buzz van. What the Amazon deal shows is how that could lead to a revival of coachbuild-style machines, giving firms the option to use bespoke, own-brand bodywork. In a similar fashion, Volkswagen is offering the MEB platform to other firms to use.
The other significance of the deal is that it demonstrates how it could be commercial applications that really help drive the mass take-up of electric vehicles – especially in the US, where looser emissions regulations and the availability of affordable petrol means consumer take-up is likely to be far lower.
Amazon announced the deal as part of a pledge to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2040. While that’s clearly a worthy goal, there are clearly financial benefits as well: running a fleet of electric vans will clearly be far cheaper for the firm in terms of fuel costs and allow it to avoid emissions penalties being introduced in several major cities.
It really fits with Amazon’s distribution model: products can be shipped using traditional trucks from its massive warehouses to distribution centres on the edge of cities and then delivered to customers using the electric vans. And, as an added bonus, having fleets of electric vans recharging at those distribution centres overnight could allow Amazon to further benefit from vehicle-to-grid charging schemes.
That’s why plenty of firms, including Vauxhall, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Volkswagen, are investing in electric vans. And with EV pricing largely based on the economies of scale of production and battery sourcing, increased take-up and sales of those commercial vehicles should drive down pricing of electric cars.
With the first Amazon-Rivian delivery vans not due to launch until 2021 (and likely in the US), this is all some way off - and it's worth noting that Amazon’s experiments with delivery drones haven’t exactly changed the world. Still, it’s a big deal that both reflects the car industry’s shift towards electrification and how non-car firms can help drive that shift.
Will Amazon’s move have a lasting impact on the car industry? We’ll find out in a few years - when there will may well be books about it available to buy on Amazon.
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