GM launches a bright future for EV production in Ontario

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by Emily Atkins

General Motors kicked off production of its BrightDrop electric van in Ingersoll, Ontario, in early December.

The event was a big deal, marking the start of a new lease on life for the company’s Cami plant, along with the announcement that DHL Express Canada would be the Canadian launch customer for the last-mile delivery van.

DHL Canada is the launch customer for the BrightDrop van in Canada. (Emily Atkins image)

BrightDrop is a GM spinoff company that is producing the vans, along with a powered cart that allows drivers to offload more parcels at each stop. The van is known as a Zevo 600, with an advertised all-electric range of close to 400 km per charge. The company plans to start manufacturing the smaller Zevo 400 later in 2023.

There are already more than 150 of the vans on the road with the company’s launch customer FedEx. They were delivered in California to FedEx Express in December 2021. This is part of a larger agreement between FedEx and BrightDrop that will see FedEx incorporate 2,500 total Zevo 600s across FedEx operations over the next few years. And FedEx is not alone in betting on the van. BrightDrop says it has orders or commitments for more than 25,000 units on the books.

Launch customer

In Canada, DHL has ordered 100 of the vans, and expects them to be operating across the country by the end of the year, said DHL Express Canada’s CEO Andrew Williams in an interview. They’ll be rolled out in major centres first, with the rest of the country seeing the EVs later, he said.

For DHL, the addition of the BrightDrop vans is part of broader sustainability initiatives, which target zero emissions by 2050, and a 60 percent green fleet by 2030. Williams said the fact that the BrightDrop van is made in Canada is partly behind the acquisition, but the range and driveability of the vehicle were more significant factors in the decision.

They’ve done significant amount of work to increase and improve the range, as well as building a truck that works for our environment and our drivers,” Williams said. “When you’re putting new vehicles into your fleet, you want to make sure that your team members who are going be operating them every day are comfortable in the vehicle.”

With the 400-km range, Zevo 600 vans might not need recharging for up to five days, said Steve Hornyak, BrightDrop’s chief commercial officer, in an interview. He cited an existing customer that is able to get that much time in between charges. That allows users to mix and match vehicles within their fleets to take advantage of the charging infrastructure they have, he said.

This is particularly important as fleets dip their toes into the uncharted waters of EV deployment. “When you don’t have as much infrastructure, if you can maximize and optimize the whole process, you can deploy more EVs,” Hornyak said. “So that’s another opportunity.”

Sweet spot for TCO

Analyst Jamie Fox of research firm Interact Analysis suggests that the BrightDrop user Hornyak cited has found the sweet spot for minimizing the cost of ownership of EVs in a delivery fleet. Using almost the entire range every day, from 95 to five percent, is “not ideal for battery life”, he said. “But if you’ve got a 200 mile range, and you’re running at a hundred miles per day, you can run the battery from 70 percent to 30 percent every day. And if you do that, the batteries last, like, forever, easily beating the lifespan of the vehicle.”

Deciding what charging infrastructure to buy and where to put it is another significant piece of the EV cost equation, and one that can be a deterrent to EV acquisition for both large and small fleets. Large fleets may face significant costs in organizing sufficient electricity supply to their location, while smaller fleets may not be large enough users to make charger installation cost-effective.

When it comes to installing the charging equipment, Hornyak points out that BrightDrop’s association with GM is a benefit for buyers of the vans. For smaller fleets, GM will connect them with a fleet management company like Element, for example, which can help with the decision-making process. And, he added, “from an infrastructure perspective, with GM Energy, we’ve got a number of very large partners allowing us to do everything from temporary charge stations to full blown infrastructure. So, we’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle, which is quite nice,” he said.

A van ‘ecosystem’

DHL has also been participating in pilot testing of the Trace electric cart that can be purchased with the vans. It has capacity to carry up to 200 pounds (91 kilograms), and is self-propelled, although not (yet) autonomous. Williams said the cart trials have shown it’s well suited in urban centres and in areas where a driver may park a vehicle and then make multiple delivery stops while on foot.

The Trace e-cart.

According to BrightDrop, using the cart – which was designed in GM Canada’s Ontario lab – can make urban deliveries up to 25 percent more efficient. Hornyak said that the carts have been tested not only in Toronto’s urban core, but also in New York City, where they provided excellent results.

Hornyak said delivery companies can gain efficiencies by employing gig workers to take the carts from higher-paid van drivers and walk around with them to the final drop-off addresses. “Think of it as bifurcating the process of driving and the last hundred yards,” he explained. “And then you can use either a gig workforce or your own workforce for that last hundred yards. You can better leverage skills, and also, the driver’s more expensive for the most part than the runners. So, now you can lower your total cost delivery.”

BrightDrop has also introduced a version of the cart for grocery fulfillment that has lockable, self-contained and temperature-controlled bins. Hornyak says the grocery carts are designed for in-store picking operations where there just isn’t enough volume to use an automated micro-warehouse or a centralized facility.

According to Rueben Scriven of Interact Analysis, using the carts for in-store fulfillment offers ergonomic benefits for the picker since it is self-powered, and once filled, it can be placed at the entrance of the store for customers to retrieve their orders. “The Trace cart will eventually get loaded into the van and then be used for the customer delivery, and it will be autonomous in nature as well,” he said. “So it will be following the delivery driver as they go out to the customer door. As the system gets more and more integrated, there’ll be more and more efficiency gains that can be developed.”