TOKYO (Reuters) - In the rush toward electric vehicles, automakers are increasingly sparing a thought for the humble delivery van, an often overlooked segment with big growth potential given tightening pollution restrictions in urban areas.
Given lingering consumer concerns about cost and charging infrastructure, many in the industry expect it will take at least a decade for electric vehicles (EVs) to win over mainstream car owners.
But as e-commerce begins to dominate the retail sector and cities clamp down on pollution, more vehicle makers see opportunities for faster take-up of EVs as delivery vehicles, taxis and other business uses in dense, urban areas.
At the Tokyo Motor Show which opened to the public on Friday, Nissan Motor Co, an early embracer of EV technology and maker of the Leaf, the world’s top-selling electric car, unveiled a concept model of its e-NV200 electric van with refrigeration capabilities, designed to transport chilled food to restaurants and homes.
“Imagine if you have city access challenges, how will you get food delivered to restaurants, and goods to customers?” said Ashwani Gupta, head of the light commercial business at the automaking alliance of Nissan and France’s Renault SA.
“There’s no other option but to go electric.”
Nissan plans to launch the refrigeration model in Japan next year, Gupta said. Both Nissan and Renault already market electric vans in Europe.
Nissan is also looking to introduce the e-NV200 series in China in the near term as it expects demand will “explode” as big cities in the country effectively ban gasoline and diesel trucks and vans in an effort to crack down on emissions.
At the moment, the country’s electric light commercial vehicle market has yet to be tapped by major foreign automakers, although Ford Motor Co wants to drive its truck-making China partner Jiangling Motors Corp (JMC) more toward electric commercial vans.
Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation, majority owned by Germany’s Daimler AG, has also begun selling its eCanter electric light-duty truck in the United States, Europe and Japan, where it targets transport delivery services and convenient stores.
As increases demand for e-commerce creates more work for delivery services, Toyota Auto Body, a wholly owned subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp, was thinking about the harried delivery van driver when it designed its LCV D-Cargo concept model.
“We set out to make the delivery truck more comfortable for drivers,” said Ichiro Mukai, who worked on the model’s design.
“In the past home deliveries mainly centered around larger parcels, but recently, a big increase in the number of deliveries has come just as people are getting smaller parcels delivered,” he said, adding that this had increased the workload of drivers.
The model’s futuristic design is based on Toyota’s gasoline-hybrid minivan models marketed in Japan, and can be adapted to operate as an all-battery electric.
Removing the passenger seat entirely, the driver’s seat configuration - which includes a retractable steering wheel and rounded seat corners - is designed to enable drivers to get in and out of the vehicle more quickly and easily.
A removable tablet device in the center of the steering wheel enables drivers to easily locate parcels in the hold, where track shelving units and a wider door opening allows for easy access to parcels from outside the vehicle.
Additional reporting by Tom Wilson; Editing by Lincoln Feast