Cargo bicycles – the future of the last mile?

Freight deliveries in cities are a challenge – not just during the holiday season. Due to frequent gridlocks in urban areas and customers’ desire for on-time deliveries, the industry is developing new solutions to old problems.

Thanks to superb logistical feats, companies in the industry are able to cover thousands of miles, seemingly without effort. Using container ships, airplanes, or LCVs (long combination vehicles), goods and products cross continents, oceans, and countries. Regardless of the distance traveled, however, the biggest challenges are at the end of the supply chain, in the last mile. Narrow streets in historic town centers, isolated residential areas, and congested pedestrian zones in inner cities complicate trouble-free and timely deliveries.

One possible solution: cargo bicycles. What might seem like something from days gone by is actually a promising solution for the future, made possible by the Internet of Things, smartphones, and electric drives. Emission-free and flexible, compact and moving at more than 15 mph, cargo bicycles enable deliveries and service runs to reach their destinations on time. Cargo bicycles can be used by anyone – no driver’s license or insurance is needed. Automobile manufacturers also see the benefits these bicycles can bring. BMW lets employees at its locations in Munich and Landshut lease e-bikes at discounted rates to ease traffic and improve air quality around the plants.

A fast, carbon-neutral trip to your destination

Volkswagen is also using pedal power. The Wolfsburg-based company presented its own electric cargo bike at the IAA Commercial Vehicles trade fair in Hanover. The “VW Cargo e-bike” is an in-house development, a cargo bike with automatic gear-switching and pedelec assistance, all connected to a 0.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, which provides enough power for 62 miles.

The cargo bike has a two-wheeled front axle that can be fitted with a load platform, a box for children to sit in, or even a 500-liter transport box. With a payload capacity of 463 pounds (including the cyclist), VW is targeting companies that need a vehicle to transport cargo the last mile to the customer. Thanks to an innovative tilting system, the cargo remains level; only the bicycle tilts (when going around a bend, for example) while the load platform remains level.

Volkswagen, BMW, and other automobile manufacturers are making things possible that pizza deliverers – the pioneers of delivery services – could only have dreamt of in the past. Whether it be carpenters, painters, or grocery services – getting from A to B in a cargo e-bike to do minor repairs, maintenance work, or the weekend shopping can be fast and carbon-neutral.

VW has already set up a production area for the VW Cargo e-bike in its established factory buildings for commercial vehicles in Hanover. The market launch is scheduled for 2019. “With this bicycle concept, we will make sure that our customers can deliver their cargo on a stable and reliable platform in urban spaces”, says project manager Thomas Ludewig. Moreover, the electric cargo bike is very agile. With a width of only 35 inches, it fits easily through narrow streets and pedestrian zones. Balloon tires ensure additional comfort.

Networked and flexible

A company from Bremen wants to practically reinvent the bicycle. Rytle combines electric cargo bikes with patented charging-box systems and urban hubs to create a networked system. Manager Arne Kruse plans to have the company’s compact freight bicycles operate on quiet tires. “A Movr is much more than just a cargo bicycle; it is a totally different means of transportation”, says the 47-year-old certifiedengineer and economist, who launched the startup together with Ingo Lübs three years ago.

The white-green electric cargo bikes are equipped with a throttle starting aid. There is also a model with an inductive (wireless) charging station. Kruse is currently working on a model with a fuel cell together with the German Aerospace Center. Cutting-edge technology for a cargo bike that resembles a rickshaw. But instead of carrying passengers in the back, small containers with a height of about 6½ feet can be mounted in a few simple steps. Depending on what customers want to have delivered, these boxes are loaded in advance; the driver then transports them from the various charging stations – the hubs – to their destination.

The special feature of the three components – cargo bike, container, and hub – is their interconnection through highly intelligent software. In cooperation with IT professionals in Bangalore, India, Rytle has developed machine-to-machine communication. In combination with smart phones, the hubs, containers, and Movr transmit content, location, and other data at any time. “The technology is designed so that couriers can work with smart glasses. They look into the box and QR codes show them which package they have to take out next”, says Arne Kruse. This way, the driver knows exactly what they are transporting. At the same time, Movr continuously provides information about status, location, and the usage profile to the system; the recipient can use this information to track the shipment online.

All this means that packages and parcels will get to the customers even faster, not just at Christmas time. After all, cargo bicycles like the Movr or the VW Cargo e-bike do not need to use the road most of the time when transporting goods the last mile – they just use bicycle lanes.