Mercedes Plans All-Electric, Self-Driving Vans that Can Dock and Deploy Drones

Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its van of the future, a fully autonomous unit that can dock drones on its roof.

The unveiling of the Vision Van Concept was the culmination of the automaker’s Van Innovation event in Stuttgart, Germany, where Mercedes executives and engineers outlined a future mobility plan that will see traditional courier methods converge with advanced technologies in the not too distant future.

Dubbed adVANce, the plan involves aggressive development of technologies relevant to van-driven industries in a bid to provide solutions to rapid urbanization and digitalization around the globe.

“The whole world is changing,” said Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. “And the thing about change is you can be driven by it or you can drive it yourself.”


Autonomous Technologies

A key cog in Mercedes’ adVANce wheel is the solutions side of the plan — where drones and robots are incorporated into fully automated cargo management systems. The automaker knows it can’t do it alone, however, and so it has teamed up with a pair of startups to bring emerging technologies to Mercedes vans.

One firm Mercedes is teaming up with is California-based Matternet, which specializes in “last-mile logistics,” namely incorporating drones into the delivery process both at home and in the field. Chief executive and co-founder Andreas Raptopoulos said his company’s drones have been developed to carry packages that weigh as much as 4.4 lb for distances as long as 12.5 miles — all without human interaction. What’s more, the drones can be launched from — or docked on — Mercedes’ vans.

Likewise, Starship Technologies is working with Mercedes to integrate its robots into the automaker’s courier vans to deliver products to consumers’ doorsteps. Company co-founder and CEO Ahti Heinla said the robots, which can be deployed from the van, have a range of approximately two miles, allowing delivery drivers to simply park in a neighborhood before letting the autonomous wheeled machines do their work, going door to door to drop packages efficiently and effectively.


Autonomous Vehicles

With so much outside autonomous technology involved — not to mention Mercedes’ own success with autonomous vehicles — it’s no surprise that the automaker is eyeing self-driving vehicles as the pinnacle of the entire plan. That’s where the Vision Van concept comes in, delivering a fully autonomous, electrically powered van that ties the entire adVANce plan together.

Powered by a 75-kW electric drive system, the Vision Van has a range of roughly 270 miles, and features an automated cargo area that sorts and sends packages on its own through the use of cloud-based control software. The van also incorporates Mercedes’ autonomous slide deck that comes pre-loaded with packages and Matternet’s autonomous drones to deliver them to customers.


Delivering the Goods

Add in an ambitious target, and Mercedes is seemingly all-in on its plan to revolutionize its vans division. “Mercedes-Benz Vans in 2020 will be a totally different company than the one you know today,” Mornhinweg, head of the automaker’s vans division, said.

Judging by what the automaker has cooking at R&D facilities in Germany and California, he’s probably right. From pilot projects that incorporate autonomous drones and robots to deliver packages, to fleet management solutions and optimized cargo capacity, Mercedes’ vans division wants to transform itself from solely a manufacturer into a “holistic solutions” provider. How it’s going to get there, though, remains to be seen.

Questions about the scope of Mercedes’ vision crop up pretty quickly, and that’s to make no mention of the prohibitive costs associated with implementing autonomous pick-and-pack equipment, delivery robots and drones. It’s all part of a perfect world scenario one that Mercedes will have to act fast on if it wants to deliver the future now.

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