Arrival’s electric van is ready for testing

The company has a contract with UPS for 10,000 vehicles.

Anglo-American vehicle manufacturer Arrival has today unveiled its electric van in a form ready to begin testing. 25 vans, currently under construction in Oxfordshire, will be spending the summer on roads in the UK in the run-up to mass production. There’s a lot riding on the success of these tests, especially since UPS has already committed to purchase 10,000 units. Arrival is just five years old, but despite its relative youth, its executives are bullish about its potential.

Created by Yota co-founder Denis Sverdlov, Arrival is focused on building electric vehicles that aren’t as headline-generating as electric SUVs. Its first project was to reinvent the bus on a modular, customizable platform designed for cities across the globe. Its second, but the first we’ll see on our streets, is a delivery van designed to disrupt the commercial vehicles and package carts used in Europe and the US. And it couldn’t come at a better time.

COVID-19 has accelerated the trends towards e-commerce and home deliveries, with a commensurate increase in emissions. After all, online shopping leads to more mid-sized commercial vehicles trundling around busy metro areas at low speeds. In January 2020, the World Economic Forum expected package deliveries to generate around 25 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030 — an increase of six million tonnes compared to 2019.

But national and local leaders are laying the groundwork for bans on the most polluting vehicles in major cities in the run-up to 2030. California, Massachusetts, the UK and Germany are already working toward fossil-fuel vehicle bans, with more to follow. Similarly, President Biden has pledged to electrify America’s federal vehicle fleet and raise the cost of carbon when making purchasing decisions on behalf of the US government. It is, therefore, a great time to be a plucky upstart pitching an affordable, reliable and efficient commercial vehicle.

Arrival says that its van will cost similar to the equivalent fossil-fuel vehicle, but with the usual savings associated with EVs in the long-run dramatically reducing its total cost of ownership. EVs can boast of needing less maintenance, qualify for emissions tax savings and cheaper fuel costs. In addition, the company says that its trucks will last a lot longer than the comparable gas-powered equivalent. Its stated aim is to entirely invalidate the economic case for buying a gas-powered commercial vehicle.

In order to do this, the van uses a number of construction techniques that veer away from the automotive received wisdom. First, the vehicle itself is almost entirely contained inside a “skateboard” (so-called because it’s relatively flat) that houses the motors, batteries and the necessary controllers. On top of which, you’ll find an aluminum frame that has been structurally bonded to the skateboard. The vehicle is then clad in thermoplastic composite panels, which are created from recycled materials.

As a consequence of COVID-19, I was only able to tour the new van, and Arrival’s Oxfordshire R&D facility over Zoom. Patrick Bion, Arrival’s head of product, said that the technology here is a far cry from the plastic-clad cars, like GM’s Saturn, or the Chevy Cobalt, that exist as an auto industry punchline of a sort. He said that the company has ensured that its van meets or exceeds current safety standards. And that the impact protection afforded by the thermoplastic panels may beat traditional materials.

Image of the interior of the Arrival Van

Bion showed me a piece of wing taken from the wheel arch of a Ford Transit, the vehicle that is synonymous with European commercial vehicles. Beside it was a copy made by Arrival’s engineers using its thermoplastic "multiform" process. Bion said both panels were hit by an 8.5 kilogram (18.7lb) curbstone, and while the Ford panel was badly deformed, the plastic suffered only a minor dent. He went on to say that the dent could be pulled out, and any cracks in the plastic could be filled, letting the vehicle remain on the road until a replacement could be sourced.

Arrival’s legion of 1,500 employees, more than half of which are software engineers, have worked to challenge auto industry dogma, said Bion. The skateboard, for instance, is chock-full of custom-designed parts to ensure better reliability and better space-efficiency. In fact, only the battery cells themselves come from a third party — LG Chem — and assembled into packs at the factory. This emphasis on integration should improve both reliability and space economy.

For instance, Bion said the beta model has a cargo space of around 14 cubic meters, despite the size of its wheel-base. If you wanted the same capacity in, say, a Ford Transit, you’d need to opt for the company’s longer wheel-base model. And Arrival has also specced its first van model to allow for full-height entry and exit. It should come as no surprise that the company’s first customer is UPS, which signed up for 10,000 vans in April 2020 to refresh its fleet of package cars. (UPS also has first refusal on another 10,000 vans, and invested in the company at the same time.)

The van's future roadmap will see various wheelbases and cargo sizes offered, with the smallest unit packing a nine cubic meter capacity, through to 17 cubic meters for the biggest option available.

If you look at the 2020 UPS-branded prototype, you may notice that there are some differences compared to the beta model unveiled today. Jeremy Offer, Arrival’s head of design, explained that the company had to tweak some of the more outlandish ideas after testing the initial model. The biggest change is the windshield, which was vertical in the original version and now rakes up from the front bumper to the roof. The flat window may have looked space-age, but ruined the vehicle’s aerodynamics, which are crucial even for a vehicle scuttling around cities at slow speeds.

Similarly, the driver’s seat was sited over the front axle, giving the driver more legroom and tucking the wheels further back. But this, too, didn’t work in the real world, as it made it harder for the driver to enter and exit the vehicle. The proportions of the van have changed, too, in order to ensure the vehicle remains “scaleable.” Offer explained that while the prototype, in its UPS configuration where the driver could walk around at full height, worked, shorter versions looked all out of proportion.

Patrick Bion, while touring around the vehicle, pointed out that the roof panel running down the center of the cargo space, is partially transparent. It’s a similar design facet as found on Arrival’s bus, with large windows and a semi-opaque roof enabling light to pour in. Offering bigger windows and more room to move around in is part of the compromise Arrival’s designers have provided given the minimalism elsewhere in its cabin designs. There are no quirky flourishes in its vehicles, but it instead offers occupants light, space and a greater feeling of freedom.

Arrival’s unique selling point is not just that it’s designed an EV on a clean sheet of paper and expects the world to make admiring noises. The company repeatedly insists that its construction strategy is just as important to its future success as its wheels riding on the road. Rather than building a sprawling, city-sized plant most commonly associated with the auto industry, Arrival thinks smaller is better. It is setting up single assembly-line plants in the footprint of existing commercial warehouses on anonymous industrial parks.

The Bicester, Oxfordshire plant where the first UPS vans will be built next year occupies around 110,000 square feet. These “microfactories” will employ around two hundred people, split across two shifts, with robots assembling the majority of the cars. “The capital investment is less than 50 percent,” said Bion, “very low compared to a normal facility.” He added that the company expects to build each factory for $45 million, and that its maximum capacity will be 10,000 vehicles a year. But the focus on a single production line enables Arrival to be reliable and close to its suppliers and customers. It helps, too, that the facilities can be distributed around the world — a second plant in South Carolina is currently under construction.

And production of the vans is expected to be pretty seamless, since the company envisioned the production process while it was designing the car, rather than designing the car and working back to the assembly line. Bion said that the designs were conceived in tandem, adding that the company was “learning from [other companies’] mistakes,” especially those who found the transition from small-volume to mass-production players less than easy.

Arrival’s pitch to its customers is that these vehicles are purpose-built for big logistics companies across the world. And there are enough options — in terms of battery size — to suit the needs of hyper-local delivery firms through to those traveling hundreds of miles a day. Each van can be specced with a 44kWh battery through to a 133kWh unit, depending on expected range. And when those cells are past their best, the company will work to replace them, keeping the vehicles on the road for longer than their gas-powered predecessors.

In the future, the company is also sketching out different cabin height and wheelbase options, as well as different purposes. It may begin life as a delivery van, but if all goes to plan, Arrival will be showing off cab, cargo van and even passenger van options in the next few years. But between then and now, those 25 vehicles need to prove to everyone that we’re ready for an electric revolution in the logistics world.

Of course, there are challengers: GM’s BrightDrop unit, which hit the headlines at the start of the year, is working on its own electric van as part of an electric “ecosystem” for logistics. The EV600 promises a similar electrified ride, albeit with a greater focus on cargo. Meanwhile, Amazon and Rivian are working on a boxy van designed to integrate into that company’s extensive supply chain. And Canoo is working on a small van which may look to enter similar territory in the next few years. The trends are only going one way, but it’ll be up to each company to determine if it can translate promise into success.