We all know that last-mile delivery causes traffic and pollution. URB-E has created a mobility solution that hopes to solve this issue. It provides trailers, containers and alternative electric delivery vehicles (e-bikes or e-scooters) that can ride on sidewalks and bike lanes.
Auto Futures’ Lynn Walford has hit the road (or more like the pavement) to find out more about the U.S. start-up.
When I last visited URB-E and talked to Co-Founder, Peter Lee, it was making collapsible urban e-scooters for consumers that could pull a wagon. It turns out the company has made a U-turn and now they are creating a whole new way of last-mile delivery which you could call D-E-V-a-a-S – Delivery-Electric-Vehicles-as-a-Service.
I first talked to URB-E’s investor and Chief Executive Officer, Charles Jolley over the phone. He told me that an e-bike could easily pull 800 pounds on a foldable trailer. I thought, “I ride my bike regularly, I’d like to try to pull 800 pounds.” Then he suggested I meet with him and URB-E engineer Sven Etzelsberger, Co-founder and CTO at the URB-E studio. The experiment went off with only one hitch.
“Vans and trucks for last-mile delivery are major polluters,” says Jolley.
Etzelsberger who is best known for being an engineer for Porsche, Ford, Fisker and Salen explains why he is developing URB-E: “I’m passionate about designing cars for 25 years. Designing more cars is not going to solve the problem of congestion. There is limited space. We have a viable way to effectively carry large loads. It doesn’t take a 10,000 pound truck to deliver 800 pounds of cargo.”
Jolley says the URB-E vehicle (which can be an e-bike) cum trailer/container methods are much more efficient in many ways. The combo can do a U-turn on the sidewalk with a five-foot radius and they are electric.
So far, the company has deployed last-mile delivery e-bikes with containers and trailers in New York City. URB-E worked with the city and riders to enable the safe use of bike lanes.
“The e-bikes cannot go over 12 mph. They have a pedal-assist feature to haul up to 800 pounds of delivery cargo,” says Jolley.
We have insulated bags that will keep food cold for hours.
There are staging areas where riders pick up the e-bikes. The containers can be packed and delivered to a local distribution centre. The vehicles which are pedal-assist e-bikes are not left on the street they are returned to URB-E.
This spring, URB-E will be announcing they are going to offer services in Brooklyn. URB-E- is working with the city of Santa Monica for its zero-emissions delivery zone. URB-E foldable e-scooters with wagons are being used to deliver COVID vaccines inside a major venue, says Jolley.
“When we look at the differences with van/truck delivery- URB-E has a much lower concession rate for lost damage and stolen packages. The major benefit is zero emissions and URB-E can be up to twice as efficient as other forms of delivery. One container can hold enough packages for fifty deliveries,” explains Jolley.
Delivery providers are currently paying by the month for URB-E service and providing their own insurance. The company aims to also offer service by the hour for local businesses such as food delivery, delivering tools to construction sites, dockless scooter wrangling or other creative uses, says Jolley
It sounded like a great idea. I wanted to look at the containers themselves. Instead of a hand cart or dolly packed with plastic crates and fabric bins usually used in warehouses and packing centres, the container has two rows. It is about four feet high and two arm lengths long, and about two feet wide. The containers are designed to hold delivery packages and grocery bags. The container with four wheels can fit in a grocery store aisle or in a kitchen, says Jolley.
“What keeps a carton of eggs from breaking?” I asked Etzelsberger.
“The containers have dividers that keep the bags in place,” Etzelsberger says, “The trailers have suspension for a smooth ride.”
“What about ice cream? What will keep it from melting?” I asked.
“We have insulated bags that will keep food cold for hours,” answered Jolley.
The containers are packed in the distribution centre or local retailer and then are wheeled onto the trailer.
I was given a demo of how the trailer unfolded like a portable cot. Then the back of the trailer is brought down to sidewalk or floor height via a hand-cranked winch.
Etzelberger opened the container to show heavy sandbags totalling seven hundred and fifty pounds. What will keep someone from stealing the container? I asked and tried to pull it a few inches uphill. It was impossible.
Hitting The Road
The sides of the container are lockable with hardware and software. The containers are then electronically locked onto the trailer. The winch is hand-cranked to even out the trailer. The trailer is then hitched to the e-bike. A smartphone app unlocks/locks the container and the e-bike.
Okay, my turn to ride.
Etzelsberger shows me how to start the e-bike and accelerate. I assumed that it would be exactly like riding my regular bike. I brought my shiny new helmet but not my mirror.
I asked, “How do I see what is going on behind me?”
They assured me that I could look behind me. They also showed me the tall lights on the container and signal lights.
I hit the starter, pedal and take off. I am pedalling – just like a regular bike, except, I’m pulling 800-freaking pounds. I feel powerful.
At a block away, I feel so powerful that I decide to make a left turn into the post office loading zone to make a coveted small U-turn.
I feel my balance tilt to the left.
The bike topples and I fall. Instinctively, I throw my left hand out to catch the fall. My left elbow and knee smack into something hard. O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-u-c-h.
What I didn’t know is the difference between being a delivery rider towing a trailer and just a bike rider. Etzelsberger explained that I probably should have made a wider turn.
It is like the tractor-trailer trucks they have to make a wide turn. I turned up the driveway in the middle of the lane like I would with a car. The trailer hit the curb surrounding a sign and shrubs on the left of the lane. The trailer stopped as it was programmed to do. The e-bike and I fell to the ground.
It looked like the e-bike and the container were fine. I was shaken up and in shock. My left elbow, knee and hand hurt. I thought about the startling statistics of how many more cyclists were injured and killed since the pandemic. My knee and elbow were skinned under my jacket and jeans.
Etzelsberger and Jolley showed their concern and asked if I was okay.
“You were able to successfully pull 800 pounds,” assured Jolley on the way back to the studio. He adds, “URB-E is a commercial service. We require six hours of training.”