As part of its worldwide strategy Mercedes Benz could introduce drones, a new Sprinter and PRO on a Global Scale. Nearly two years ago the company came out with its Sprinter-based concept ‘last-mile’ delivery van that featured a pair of drones that would deliver to retail customers. That concept involved customer lock-boxes to keep shipments safe until collected by the recipients.
In the interim, Mercedes has moved forward with a pilot program in Zurich, Switzerland, with drones and vans. Together with US drone developer Matternet and a Swiss online marketplace, the partnership has started a pilot project to test a van and drone-based system for on-demand delivery of e-commerce goods. The pilot project, which started back in September 2017, is claimed the first time that extensive beyond-line-of sight drone operations with the use of vans as landing platforms is taking place in a major urban area.
Customers were able to order selected products from online marketplace siroop that are suitable for transport by a Matternet drone, such as consumer electronics and other e-commerce items weighing up to two kilograms. Delivery is made on the same day. The drones are loaded directly at the merchant and flown to one of two Mercedes-Benz Vito vans equipped with a precision landing technology. The vans stop at one of four pre-defined “rendezvous” points within the city of Zurich, where the van driver takes possession of the product and delivers it to the customer, while the drone returns to the retailer.
The new third generation Sprinter goes on sale in a rollout in multiple world markets with the United States timed for fourth quarter this year. But based on a European ride and drive around the Netherlands city of Amsterdam, I’d say it’ll be well-worth waiting for.
The full range of the new model includes the existing configurations of wheelbases and roof heights and includes a new variant: a low-floor, front wheel drive that will not launch in the US, at least in the initial phase. But it is an interesting variation on the Sprinter theme and was the first I tried over a city-based route down to the university city of Leiden, a 47-mile (76 km) drive that took in a lot of city driving in a circuitous course leaving Amsterdam. This a special distribution model where the elimination of the driveline and a straight-tube on the rear axle allowed engineers to lower the floor 80mm. It doesn’t sound like a lot but it would undoubtedly mean major driver energy savings over the course of a working day when as many as 150 delivery stops means a lot of clambering in and out of the van.
At its North American launch, we will see only a conventional rear wheel drive and the four-wheeldrive that has proven itself so practical since the launch of the 4×4 back in late 2013.
The dark blue, high volume van I tested had the 143hp, 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel with a super slick, new nine-speed auto transmission. And while the front-wheel-drive van won’t be available in the US later this year, this fine shifting transmission will, with the also refined six-speed manual. And while the performance, quietness and smoothness of this combo impressed, it was the ride that was a stand-out. And this is a feature of all the new Sprinters based on a sampling of two of the new models. The next experience was in a rear-wheel-drive passenger van with the same diesel driving through a seven-speed auto.
PRO for Professionals
Daimler’s PRO allows fleet managers access to a broad range of information on a fleet-wide or individual vehicle basis. It also allows for driver communications in and out of the vehicle. This proved a boon as the second test vehicle suffered a glitch with the preloaded route maps and instructions. Using PRO, an updated set of route instructions was sent over the air and loaded into the nav unit. The destination was in sight again, despite being well off the beaten track. We were able to drive the van straight to the destination with real-time traffic updates and the minimum of frustration.
This all new set up, plus the clever dash and storage should serve to keep the Sprinter ahead of its competition, much of which is still in its first generation where the Mercedes is now third gen. The electric option when it becomes available will also increase Mercedes’ reach into the last-mile revolution.
Particularly worthy of mention on the latest Sprinter is the top-of-dash storage which uses otherwise wasted behind-the-dash space. On the top model, this storage runs to three lidded bins with the bigger in the middle featuring a couple of USB ports, allowing for the charging of handheld devices while driving. The vans can also be configured with a wifi hotspot, a particularly desirable feature for bus passengers.