LONDON -- London's delivery companies are experimenting with electric vehicles to reduce the pollution produced by vans distributing parcels packed with goods purchased on the Internet.
The UK capital's transport authority is helping the transition from diesel to battery-powered vehicles by funding Gnewt Cargo Ltd., which operates London's largest all electric delivery fleet. Gnewt is part owned by shipping DX Group, and counts the delivery services TNT Express and Hermes Parcelnet among its customers.
With their emissions-free electric motors silently navigating 20,000 packages a day through London streets, Gnewt could also deliver a breath of fresh air to Europe's biggest city. The government says London's pollution levels will probably breach European Union limits until at least 2030, a problem the Royal College of Physicians estimates causes 40,000 people a year to die early.
London expects a 20 percent increase in van traffic within the next 15 years traceable solely to things bought on the Internet.
Gnewt's vans, which also use centralized depots to reduce the number of journeys, are seen as one solution to curb the smog and traffic generated by online-order deliveries.
"My clients send me all of their freight in bulk through the night, and then we will sort it and do the last mile in town with zero emissions," Sam Clarke, founder and director of Gnewt Cargo, said in an interview.
Pollution has is also becoming a political issue. London wants to become an incubator for solutions like the one offered by Gnewt, whose name means "Green New Transport." Sadiq Khan, who won the city's mayoral election last week, called dirty air "our most pressing environmental challenge" and promised an ultra-low-emissions zone for the city that would limit truck traffic and an expansion of the electric-vehicle charging network. "We need a radical mayor in the positive sense of the word" to address the issue of air pollution, Khan told voters before the election.
But with online purchases needing to be delivered, London already is feeling the impact. Congestion from delivery vehicles rose 3.4 percent from 2008 to 2014, driving pollution levels past European Union limits. Plus, more than 60 percent of the delivery vans on the street are less than a quarter full, according to Transport for London, the city authority governing streets and railways.
Using Gnewt Cargo, Hermes Parcelnet cut the number of miles it traveled in a year by 80 percent, achieved a 71 percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions per parcel and a 67 percent drop in carbon dioxide pollution, according to a study by Westminster University for Gnewt.
"These are huge savings, and it's demonstrating to wider London that it's doable," Clarke said. "There's no reason why those figures couldn't be replicated on a grander scale."
London isn't alone in battling pollution stemming from home shopping -- and the costs in financial and environmental terms of the last mile that packages travel before they get into the hands of consumers. Amazon, Wal-Mart and Google are testing airborne drones, and startups Starship Technologies in the UK and Dispatch Robotics in the U.S. are working with delivery robots.
In Norway, the government postal service Posten Norge has bought about 450 alternative fueled vans since 2011 including Renault’s Kangoo ZE and Nissan Motor Co.'s e-NV200.
Electric vehicles for delivery have caught the eye of Alibaba Group Holding, which controls more than half China's online shopping market and is working with electric vehicle manufacturer Kandi Technologies Group Inc. to bolster use of the technology.
Online shopping in China alone may reap sales of 7.5 trillion yuan ($1.16 trillion) by 2018, according to iResearch Consulting Group.
"Traffic jams and air pollution are pushing gasoline-powered cars into a dead end," Kandi President Hu Xiaoming said in an interview. "The development of data technologies is providing us with an enormous opportunity to make electric cars much easier to use."