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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Amazon put 300 electric vans on Seattle streets. We drove one


SEATTLE — Amazon now has more than 10,000 Rivian electric delivery vans, including 300 in Seattle, delivering packages to customers.

Amazon, which invested in Rivian to develop the electric delivery van, said Tuesday it was on track to meet its goal of deploying 100,000 electric vans by 2030, part of its broader climate pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. So far, Amazon has delivered 260 million packages to customers using the electric vans and has 12,000 EV chargers.

The vans — complete with what Amazon calls its signature Prime blue paint and the bug-eyed headlights that convey the vehicle is smiling — are part of Amazon’s “last-mile delivery” or the final leg of a package’s journey to a customer’s doorstep.

Typically, a driver may load the van with 200 packages from an Amazon warehouse. Using a preprogrammed route that appears on the van’s dashboard, the driver makes stops throughout the Seattle area before returning to the Amazon warehouse to charge the van overnight.

“The real takeaway here is we have scaled this program very quickly — and that trajectory, that scale is continuing,” said Matthew Norman, the director of fleet technology for Amazon, speaking Tuesday at the company’s first tour of the vans since rolling them out last year. “We think we’ve built the best delivery vehicle that’s ever been built.”

At DWA2, an Amazon warehouse in Tukwila, there’s a lull in activity most afternoons while drivers are completing their routes, Norman said. On Tuesday, Amazon filled a stretch of road usually reserved for loading vans with four Rivian vehicles for journalists to test drive.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, it took time to get used to the size of the van — larger than anything I’ve ever driven. I kept glancing up, looking for a rearview mirror, but with cargo stored in the back, a mirror wouldn’t show much. Instead, Amazon drivers look down and to the right, where a dashboard is equipped with several views of their surroundings, fed from cameras trained on the road.

After a few left turns and successfully merging on a ramp to the highway — and then quickly exiting — I joked that I felt more confident than ever that I’d be able to drive a U-Haul for my next move.

In the cargo area, the vans are equipped with two metal shelves to hold packages and plenty of space on the floor below each shelf for larger items. There is also a dolly tucked into the back left corner to help drivers carry the heaviest packages.

The van has two seats — one for the driver and another that folds down to be used when training new drivers. Both seats come with heating and cooling, and the steering wheel also heats up.

When the driver puts the van in park, the door that separates the front of the van, where the driver sits, from the back, where the packages sit, automatically opens.

On the dashboard by the driver’s seat, there is a scrollable list of each delivery for the day as well as a map with numbered pins that shows where the driver is headed. The list will update with a drop-off time after each delivery is completed.

The vans use “one-pedal driving,” something that has become common in EVs and can feel bumpy at first for drivers used to a gas-powered car. Rather than needing to always hit the brakes, the van will slow down or stop when the driver eases off the gas pedal. That can make it easier to recharge while driving.

Amazon began focusing on electric delivery vehicles in 2018, Norman said, when it launched its Delivery Service Partner program. Also known as DSPs, Amazon’s delivery service partners are independent companies that hire their own drivers to deliver Amazon packages, using vans with Amazon’s logo.

Amazon realized then that standard “off-the-shelf cargo vans” didn’t work well for its business model, Norman said. It started searching the marketplace for something better — and then for partners that might build something new. That’s when Rivian stepped in, Norman said.

The EV startup has faced supply chain setbacks, production delays and skepticism from investors — but Amazon has remained unwavering in its $1.3 billion investment. Amazon has roughly 150 million shares in Rivian.

Amazon and Rivian rolled out the prototypes in 2021 and began deploying the vans in 2022. In July, Amazon announced it had 5,000 electric vans on the road in the U.S. and doubled that number in four months. The speed of its rollout “represents what’s possible when we come together,” said Udit Madan, Amazon’s vice president of transportation.

The electric delivery vans are one prong of Amazon’s net-zero mission, which also includes plans to switch to renewable energy in its data centers and corporate buildings, reduce the amount of packaging used for each shipment and install hydrogen-powered forklifts in its warehouses and battery-electric generators on its TV sets.

In the five years since Amazon made its climate pledge, the company’s total carbon footprint has grown from roughly 51 million metric tons in 2019 to 71.5 million metric tons in 2021. Amazon’s carbon footprint declined 0.4% in the past year, dropping to 71.2 million metric tons in 2022, according to the most recent company data from July.

As Amazon decides where to roll out its new electric delivery vans, it considers where it could have the most impact in dense areas with a lot of deliveries as well as where it has the charging infrastructure in place to handle the vehicles.

Norman declined to share how much Amazon has invested in charging infrastructure to ensure its electric vans keep humming.

The vans don’t usually run out of charge through the course of the day, Norman said, but they are plugged in each night before loading up again the next morning.

The chargers themselves are similar to those a consumer might use to recharge a car, Norman said, but Amazon is considering what a “fleet-specific” charger might need.

Just as Amazon wouldn’t settle for an off-the-shelf cargo van, the company would like to work with partners to figure out what charging infrastructure best suits its business, Norman said. “We never want to settle and say ‘OK, great, we did it,’” he said.