The seat below me buzzed, alarming me for a moment before I realized it was doing what was promised: alerting me to the presence of a biker in my blind spot. And by “my blind spot,” I mean the much-larger-than-I’m-used-to blind spot of the electric delivery vehicle I somehow found myself driving through the chaos of Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s main drag.
I drove slowly for those 10 minutes of playing delivery driver, not only because of my bulky ride, but because I was trying to take in the vehicle’s features for you, dear reader.
The vehicle in question is BrightDrop’s EV600, among the latest offerings from one of the many companies looking to electrify freight and deliveries in the U.S. The GM subsidiary is focused on precisely the part of the delivery landscape that is most visible to the public: the last mile.
I have begun to notice with some alarm the idling of delivery vehicles as packages make their way from truck to mailbox. The emissions, the exhaust, the obstacles they pose to the bicyclists braving my busy road: The machinations of modern deliveries can be fraught. And they can absolutely worsen the quality of life in cities. Electrifying those vehicles would cut down on air and noise pollution, all while reducing carbon emissions.
BrightDrop is still in its very early stages. Launched in January 2021, the company has since produced both the EV600 van — designed to be roughly between the size of a UPS van and a Mercedes Sprinter van — and an electrified container that would act as a middleman, speedily moving packages from warehouse to van and from van to mailbox.
BrightDrop's vans arrive to the client looking like an empty box. Photo: BrightDrop
It already has contracts with both FedEx and Walmart. The first five BrightDrop FedEx vans were delivered with some fanfare last December, and more have quietly joined the fleet in the months since.
The company’s rapid progress to this point accounts for the fastest-ever development-to-production process in GM’s history; large-scale production of the EV600 is expected to begin in the last quarter of this year in Canada.
This speed is due in part to the simplicity of the electric motor, which relies on the same Ultium batteries that GM uses throughout its many subsidiaries that are increasingly leaning electric. BrightDrop launched right around the time that GM announced its goal of eliminating all gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars and SUVs from its lineup by 2035.
This week, I took a firsthand look at what they’re working on, and delved into what the company’s impact could be on how our packages find their way to our doorsteps. While I am certainly no expert on delivery vans, I can tell you that BrightDrop’s vision for the future is decidedly smoother and quieter than the vans regularly idling on my busy street.
A sleek box for transporting boxes
Stepping into the cargo hold of an EV600, I was impressed at how streamlined it felt. Everything was designed with the input of delivery drivers who step in and out of these trucks dozens of times per day, and have ergonomics at top of mind. I am of fairly average height, and I was able to waltz my way in through the passenger side door and out through the back with ease. There’s no space wasted here, but the EV600 doesn’t feel claustrophobic in the least.
The vans arrive to the client looking like an empty box, said Stephen Marlin, the account executive from BrightDrop who showed me around the Greenpoint warehouse where the vehicles had been set up. Then the client, be it FedEx, Walmart or someone else, outfits the cargo space to its specifications.
Inside the EV600 that I saw before my test drive in a different van, the passenger side dashboard had a concave dip carved out, which Marlin said is the precise size to fit a USPS box. (USPS is not a BrightDrop client, and has in fact rebuffed the Biden administration’s encouragement to electrify more than a fraction of its vehicle fleet. But dare to dream. (FedEx, he said, scrapped that cut-out in its own version of the van.)
The van has a dual charging port, allowing drivers to either juice up slowly overnight (which will be the case for most delivery fleets) to the maximum range of 250 miles, or to use direct-current charging on the off chance that a longer journey might be necessary. The faster DC charging for the BrightDrop vans gets them roughly 160 miles of range in an hour. The touch-screen control panel at the dash has options like “charge now/later” in order to allow fleets to take advantage of off-peak demand charging.
Marlin noted that the vehicle is considered “over-ranged,” meaning 250 miles is further than virtually any delivery driver would have to go in a single day. But anything to reduce range anxiety in the potentially wary EV adopter!
From behind the wheel
After poking around the back of the van on display in the vast warehouse where BrightDrop is showing off its wares, I got to the fun part: climbing into the driver’s seat of one of the models parked outside.
I’m not a car person, let alone a delivery van person, so maybe take this with a grain of salt. But! There are a number of newfangled features that make driving the EV600 both easier and more fun than the 1999 station wagon I learned on. The van uses haptic steering to keep the unsteady driver in-lane, as well as a haptic seat, which vibrates when a pedestrian or bike crosses in front of the van or into the blind spot. Encouraging, for those of us who are unlikely to be behind the wheel with any regularity — and also for pedestrians and cyclists, who are increasingly at risk on roadways.
The EV600 is whisper-quiet. Starting it up doesn’t yield a rumble that will shake you out of your reverie like the average FedEx truck. However, as required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the van does make a low noise to alert pedestrians and cyclists to its presence. It sounded a bit like the first few notes of an opera: both pleasant and decidedly unlike any automobile I have encountered before.
This electrified container would act as a middleman, speedily moving packages from warehouse to van and from van to mailbox.Photo: Lisa Martine Jenkins/Protocol
This was also my first experience of one-pedal driving, wherein easing off the gas pedal promptly slows the van to a stop without the need to rely on the brake pedal at all. This is possible because EVs rely on regenerative braking, which allows the electric motor to act as a generator and charge the battery as it slows down. With one-pedal driving, that regenerative braking becomes nominally more efficient, and can potentially extend a vehicle’s maximum range by several miles.
That said, I found one-pedal driving went against my right foot’s decade of muscle memory. I turned off the setting after a few blocks, the few extra miles of range be damned. Marlin told me that the vans are set up to replicate the experience of a conventional delivery van as closely as possible so the transition is an easy one for drivers, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one wanting to get a little gas-to-brake exercise in.
From my perspective, BrightDrop succeeded in that respect — driving was fairly seamless, aside from some wider righthand turns than I’m used to. The vibrating seat alerted me to a bike delivery driver slipping between me and a parked car, which was both startling and comforting, but otherwise it was not unlike driving a U-Haul. A very smart, very sleek, very quiet U-Haul. I can’t imagine any delivery driver would bristle at making the transition from an old, noisy and polluting van to BrightDrop’s electrified version.
As for me: I am happy to report there were no collisions, though I’m pretty sure I held up a city bus that probably would have navigated the mean streets of Greenpoint with more finesse.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the location where BrightDrop's large-scale production of the EV600 will begin later this year. This story was updated April 1, 2022.