On crowded city streets at rush hour, a bicycle is usually a faster way to get around than a car. So for package delivery companies like UPS–so obsessed with saving time (and gas) that they try to avoid ever turning left–would it make sense to switch to bikes instead of cargo vans?
A new concept delivery bike from Ford is designed to work either on its own or with an electric van. The e-bike can fold up to store in the van, charging while the driver makes the rounds on a route. When traffic gets bad, the driver can park and hop on the bike with a stack of packages.
“The concept is if there’s still going to be delivery vans and we’ll need them, can they work in concert with e-bikes so deliveries can be quicker?” says Bill Coughlin, president and CEO at Ford Global Technologies, a part of the company that manages patents. “It’s an additional delivery mechanism to help various operations be green, and healthy, and reduce congestion.”
While a cargo bike might do the job better in some locations–especially places with separated bike lanes–the slim e-bikes can easily ride through traffic. By connecting with a van that can hold dozens of boxes, the system could be more efficient than cargo bikes.
The bikes are optimized for city use, with handlebars that vibrate to give turn-by-turn navigations along the best route for cycling, automatic turn signals and brake lights, and the ability to quickly fold up and be towed down a sidewalk or into a building (imagine streets without double-parked delivery vans). Modular boxes on the back hold packages.
“Typical e-bikes today are big, heavy and expensive,” says Coughlin. “We wanted the bikes to be foldable and collapsible so they’re easy to move. We have a smaller motor than you’ll find in some bikes, because we want some pedaling . . . it’s also a way to promote the health of the operators.”
Ford also adapted an ultrasonic sensor that they’ve used in cars; the sensor detects any cars approaching behind the bike and alerts the rider with a buzz of the handlebars. The handlebars also flash, so the driver is more likely to notice the bike.
An app connected to the delivery van tracks the bike, so one person could drive the van while someone else fans out to make deliveries in more congested areas. “We wanted to make it as simple and seamless for customers as we can,” says Coughlin.
For now, the bike is just a concept, though Coughlin hopes to take it forward. “If we’re going to be a leader in multi-modal transportation, bikes are going to be a part of that,” he says.
Coughlin is an unlikely project lead; as a lawyer, he’s in charge of intellectual property for the company. But he was inspired to pursue the bike at a brainstorming session, and the company gave him the resources to make a prototype.
“You think about a company where an intellectual property lawyer can help sponsor and manage the creation of Ford e-bikes and an app–that should tell you that Ford has changed,” he says. “It’s become a company that’s all about innovation.”
As part of the project, Ford also designed an e-bike for urban commuters that can fold for public transit and re-route trips if a train happens be delayed. Both the commuter and delivery bikes have sensors to track routes, speed, and weather, so engineers can look at that data to better design future bicycles.
The project is part of a bigger push at Ford to explore mobility issues that go beyond designing new cars–like a car-share program in Bangalore, a project using medical delivery trucks to map un-mapped roads in rural Africa, and a project that uses sensors on cars to crowdsource open parking spots.