The Future of Package Delivery: A Hybrid Truck With Drone Backup

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 29, 2014

CINCINNATI—I’ve just seen the future of package delivery, hybrid drive with drone backup! UPS and FedEx take notice!

The Amp E-Gen Workhorse truck with a hovering Horsefly drone. (Jim Motavalli photo)What you’re looking at is the Ohio-based Amp Electric Vehicles’ E-Gen delivery vehicle, based on the familiar Workhorse truck (which is now owned by Amp). The E-Gen is basically an electric truck, but it’s got a Power Solutions International on-board gas motor (intended for a forklift) that can greatly extend the 60-mile battery-only range. “It eliminates range-anxiety issues,” says Steve Burns, Amp’s CEO. “You don’t have to think about whether you have enough battery for the range you need.”

The delivery guy stops to drop off his cargo, flips a switch, and the gas engine starts up, with the electric motor becoming a generator to store energy in the battery pack. The trucks runs zero emission (using cylindrical batteries similar to the Panasonic units in the Tesla Model S); it only uses fuel when it’s parked.

Amp CEO Steve Burns with his 20-mpg delivery truck. (Jim Motavalli photo)Basically, what fleet buyers think of as a seven-mpg delivery vehicle now gets 20 mpg. The payback is just three years with the large subsidies available to buyers of electric trucks, Burns said. The EPA approved the E-Gen earlier this month, and I was the first journalist to get behind the wheel.

The E-Gen was an easy drive—rattly only because it wasn’t carrying cargo. The electric drive system felt powerful and tight, accelerating much faster and quieter than conventional delivery trucks. Power steering was an advantage, too. Drivers behind the wheel all day would love the E-Gen.

But wait, there’s more. Amp is targeting the package delivery market, and it’s seen the Amazon drone videos. The company, best known for building slick conversions of SUVs and Saturn Sky roadsters (I had a memorable drive in one of those, too) has built its own drone, the Horsefly, and integrated it with the E-Gen. Essentially, the truck becomes a “docking station” for the drone.

Amp President Martin Rucidlo explains that the drone can operate at something like a twentieth the cost of the truck. For that reason, it makes sense for the truck driver to dispatch the drone for deliveries a few miles away. As you’ll see in the video, the Horsefly sits on top of (and recharges from) the E-Gen, then can take off with five-pound packages in its jaws.

Not your father's delivery van: The Horsefly in the air. (Amp photo/Mike Dektas)It worked flawlessly in two demonstrations I saw. The 55-pound (including cargo) Horsefly lived up to its name, sounding when it was in the air like a fly caught between screens. It launched from the truck, buzzed around, and dropped its package on the equivalent of a homeowner’s front porch.

Rucidlo said that the Horsefly will navigate via GPS, then for its last mile will probably rely on its onboard cameras—controlled by a human operator back at home base. That’s because it may take a human to properly negotiate apartment buildings and multi-family homes.

Of course, neither Amazon nor Amp is getting drones in the air anytime soon. The latest from Amazon is that, in July, it asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to deliver packages via drones—and promptly saw its stock soar six percent.

I’m sure the feds ultimately will license drones, but don’t expect it to happen overnight—there’s way too much concern about mid-air collisions or injuries to people on the ground. Just yesterday, a drone managed to hover over a Panther-Chiefs game in Charlotte, North Carolina and the police detained and questioned the operator (and alerting the FAA). It was probably benign, but some drone payloads could be dangerous.

So the Horsefly may not be making deliveries, but the E-Gen will. Burns said pre-production versions of the truck are soon going soon into test programs with major fleets.  Here's a video demonstration of it in the air:

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