Internet retailing giant Amazon has had a profound – and lasting – impact on society. It has changed shopping habits and upset entire industries, in turn having a direct impact on the health of high streets. The positives and negatives of what’s been called ‘the Amazon effect’ are the subject of hundreds of books (seriously, there are loads of them available to buy on, erm, Amazon).
Now the ‘Amazon effect’ could be about to disrupt the automotive industry, thanks to the Seattle-based firm placing an order for 100,000 electric delivery vans. While that might not sound glamorous, some of the specifics of the deal are set to have a lasting impact.
The first notable point is that the order has been placed not with an automotive giant but with Rivian, an American start-up developing its own ‘skateboard’ chassis as the basis for a range of rugged go-anywhere electric vehicles (EVs). Rivian is fast separating itself from a pack of fledging EV companies with its well-formed ideas and an ability to attract an impressive amount of investment from the likes of Ford and Amazon.
Of course, it makes sense for Amazon to place an order with a firm it has a large financial stake in, so this is really a logical extension of its earlier investment. But it’s still significant that Amazon has chosen to invest in a promising small firm rather than go for the security of a supply deal with a proven manufacturer, because it potentially gives it more control over its future supply of delivery vehicles.
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.