So I spent some time in Germany this week getting a preview of the 2018 model Sprinter van, due to be officially unveiled in February next year, as well as a chance to get the perspective of Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, on what the future holds for this particular commercial vehicle segment.
Not surprisingly, the impact of e-commerce, urbanization, and our increasingly digital-based culture are profoundly affecting commercial van designs. But what I didn’t expect is that such vans are increasingly not being viewed as vehicles anymore – indeed, Mornhinweg believes they need to be viewed as “platforms,” much like a smart phone, upon which a wide variety of logistics applications are built upon.
“We need to turn the Sprinter into smart hardware ... to make it an organic part of the Internet of Things (IoT) and thus ideal for a new era of digital logistics,” he said during a special “Sprinter Innovation Campus” event held outside Stuttgart, the global home of Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz Vans.
“The city is the natural habitat and workspace of our vehicles. Many of the modern services which make urban life so pleasant would not be possible without vans. And if life and logistics in the city are changing, our vans have to change, too,” Mornhinweg stressed.
As a result, he believes that commercial van makers themselves must change, “undergoing a transformation” from a vehicle manufacturer into what Mornhinweg dubbed “a provider of integral transport and mobility solutions.”
And that means viewing vans as just vans – just trucks with price tags on them – needs to being completely reworked as well.
“The result is a completely new kind of concept which we no longer consider to be just a vehicle, but an overall system solution,” he emphasized. “We are extending the fundamental idea of the product's versatility and transforming it into a new, more intelligent form.”
E-commerce is a “forward booster” in all of this, Mornhinweg added, with the “biggest fear” being driven by e-commerce is that there will not be enough transport on the road to handle the freight demand being generated by the growth in online sales.
“For us, the focus is on efficiency; there is not enough delivery capacity out there to be used,” he said. “We need to make [vans] more efficient per route and get more parcel delivery per route. So we need to be prepared.”
That “demand” also ensures that sales of commercial light-duty vans – especially for the “European style” models now commonly used everywhere, even in the U.S. – should be strong in 2018, matching or exceeding 2017 volumes, Mornhinweg noted.
“We see 2018 more or less in line with 2017,” he said, adding that Mercedes-Benz is on track to sell about 142,000 Sprinters this year.
“Europe is doing well, the U.S. market is quite stable, Argentina is back on track and while Brazil is struggling, it is better this year,” he explained. “I see us as a commercial van industry in good shape.”
Mornhinweg also stressed that the new plant being built outside Charleston, S.C., to produce Sprinters and Metris van models for the North American market is expected to be ready by February (two years ahead of schedule) when the new 2018 model Sprinter is officially introduced – a van that will also be offered with a gasoline engine option as well as its standard diesel engine.
“We will be making gasoline engines available to the U.S. Sprinter, though we are surprised by this demand as diesel is more efficient,” Mornhinweg noted. “There is major demand for rear-wheel drive and all-wheel/four-wheel drive. Front wheel drive demand not there yet.”
He added that efforts to bring an all-electric Sprinter model to market are on track; one should be available by 2019, part of a broad “electrification” plan for the company’s entire commercial van family in both Europe and North America.
“All commercial model series are to be electrified in the coming years, starting with the eVito in Europe, in the second half of 2018, to be followed by the eSprinter in 2019,” Mornhinweg said.
“In the medium term we shall be electrifying our entire commercial portfolio,” he added. “Also, by 2019, we shall be investing an additional 150 million Euros in this area. Our aim is contemporary electric mobility which not only relieves the burden on cities and the environment, but also offers businesses genuine added value.”
And while politics is “forcing the issue” where van electrification is concerned, Mornhinweg stressed that, for Mercedes-Benz, the customer will have the final say.
“There is that question of demand [for electric vans]; the demand has to be there,” he emphasized. “But diesel vans at some point will not be allowed to operate in some inner city locations; we have to be prepared for that.”
In the end, he stressed that “variant diversity,” no doubt referencing the 1,000 different Sprinter templates that are going to be available, along electric mobility, connectivity and smart services will be the “fundamental modules” from which commercial van makers like Mercedes-Benz will put together “individual overall solutions” for customers.
“This is the first specimen of a new category; the van as a smart piece of hardware,” Mornhinweg concluded.
It’s a different way of viewing commercial vans; that much is for certain.