Skip to main content

BrightDrop's Trace cart is an electric-powered trolley that works with its delivery vans to make delivery faster and easier in urban settings. The carts can be loaded with up to 90 kilograms and could allow drivers to deliver up to 25 per cent more parcels a day.Handout

It’s no secret that electrifying a fleet of delivery vans can cut a company’s carbon emissions and improve its bottom line. But for customers choosing an electric van from BrightDrop, savings may also come from the van’s electric delivery carts, which the company says can make it quicker and easier for couriers to get parcels from the truck to the customer’s door.

BrightDrop, a subsidiary of General Motors Co., opened its factory in Ingersoll, Ont., in December and the first Zevo 600 electric vans are already rolling off the line. Inside the van is the Trace cart, an electric-powered, fully enclosed, lockable trolley – think tall upright suitcase on four wheels with a handle on the front – that can be loaded with up to 90 kilograms of parcels.

DHL Express Canada, which BrightDrop recently announced will be its first customer outside the United States, has already been testing the van and carts in downtown Toronto. It found the carts could allow drivers to deliver up to 25 per cent more parcels a day. BrightDrop’s chief commercial officer, Steven Hornyak, said the tests were replicated in New York City with the same result.

The cart, which is filled with packages at the depot and loaded onto the van, can be used to streamline the last few metres of urban deliveries. Where previously a driver would have to use a manual dolly to transport several boxes at once, with Trace, the operator controls the speed and can guide the electrically propelled cart to its destination at condos or office buildings. Trace can’t navigate stairs so it is reliant on buildings have ramps.

The carts are a game-changer for urban last-mile deliveries, Hornyak said. Not only are they electrically powered, they can also be dropped off by the driver and handed off to a gig worker to make the final deliveries. “The driver’s more expensive, for the most part, than the runners. So now you can lower your total cost of delivery.”

Canada's first large electric vehicle plant opened Mon., Dec. 5 in Ingersoll, Ont. BrightDrop, an upstart from General Motors, also announced DHL Express Canada will be its first customer outside the United States.Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

They can also be used as “microhubs” – or self-serve lockers for pick-ups – and even a drop-off spot for returns. The carts are controlled by software that includes location monitoring, battery status and commands to lock and unlock the cart for secure, remote access to the contents.

BrightDrop has also brought out a grocery version of the cart that is temperature-controlled and self-propelled. At the moment, these are being used by U.S. grocery and retain chain Kroger Co. for in-store order picking, but they are not yet being used on the company vans, according to Interact Analysis research manager Rueben Scriven.

“The Trace [grocery] cart will eventually get loaded into the van and then be used for the customer delivery, and it will be autonomous as well, following the delivery driver as they go out to the customer door,” said Scriven. “As the system gets more and more integrated, there will be more and more efficiency gains that can be developed.” The aim for BrightDrop is to develop the cart so it can make deliveries autonomously. The driver would park and the cart would do the rest.

Hornyak said BrightDrop’s ability to offer the vans, carts, a routing software package and help with charging infrastructure means they can go to prospective customers with a turnkey solution.

BrightDrop is entering a big market, but an increasingly competitive one. About 35,000 commercial delivery vans were sold in Canada in 2020 and about 10 times that number (about 385,000) were sold in the United States in 2021, according to Good Car Bad Car, which tracks sales. The Ford Transit is the biggest seller in both markets. But with a rise in online shopping and more companies seeing the environmental and economic benefits of switching to electric power, legacy automakers and startups are getting into the game.

Ford makes an electric version of its Transit cargo van, Mercedes-Benz is bringing an electric version of its Sprinter to North America and startups including Toronto-based GoBolt and Los Angeles-based Canoo are also getting in on the action. Amazon.com is rolling out electric vans it designed in collaboration with startup Rivian Automotive Inc., while the BrightDrop van came about with input from its launch customer FedEx Corp. Amazon plans to have 100,000 of the EVs making deliveries by 2030. Hornyak said BrightDrop has more than 25,000 orders for vans on the books. The van and Trace are sold separately and prices have not been made public.

BrightDrop electric delivery carts will help with deliveries where parking is a challenge and improve efficiency for package delivery.Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

DHL Canada will be integrating 100 of the BrightDrop vans into its fleet across Canada by the end of 2023, chief executive officer Andrew Williams said in an interview. The decision to electrify is part of DHL parent company Deutsche Post’s global decarbonization strategy, which has a target of zero emissions by 2050 and a 60-per-cent green fleet by 2030.

The decision to partner with BrightDrop was influenced by the fact the vans are made in Ontario, Williams said, but it was more about the vehicle itself. “They’ve done a significant amount of work to increase and improve the range, so that the vehicle is able to cover almost 400 kilometres on a single charge, as well as building a truck that works for our environment and our drivers.”

Kevin Brown, a mobility and regulatory consultant, said EVs just make sense for commercial purposes. “These vehicles are probably going to drive reliably a certain number of miles every single day, and then can be charged at night and ready for the next day,” he said. “Many of these vehicles will operate in metropolitan areas where there are benefits not just to air quality, but also with regards to noise.”

In addition to lower operating costs for EVs owing to fewer moving parts, BrightDrop estimates one of its vans can save fleets up to US$12,000 a year in fuel alone. ACT Research, a Columbus, Ind.-based firm that specializes in commercial vehicle analysis, forecasts that by 2030, 37 per cent of new van sales in Canada and the United States will be battery electric.

DHL’s Canadian BrightDrop purchase is part of a $15-million investment in electrification, the company said in September. A significant part of that will be spent adding charging infrastructure to depots in major centres.

The EVs will be deployed in urban areas first, Williams said. The company said it is confident they will be up to the challenge of operating in Canadian winters, including in colder places such as Edmonton. “Part of rolling them out quickly across the country will actually get us to test them in various environments coast to coast.”

Hornyak said the BrightDrop “ecosystem” is essentially adding a new mode of transport for urban deliveries. “We’re building the foundation for an entire ecosystem that is not just electric vehicles. It’s a micro-mobility solution that, if deployed correctly, will allow you to use fewer vehicles.”