2 Apr 19

Get ready for the invasion of the trikes

They're called rickshaws or tuk-tuks in Asia, where they're often the dominant mode of transport. Electric versions of these handy tricycles (‘trikes’ for short) could be the future of last-mile delivery, and take over the streets in Europe and the Americas as well.

Not so long ago, if you wanted a retail product, your only option was to go into a shop and buy it. But about 10 years ago, the rise and rise of e-commerce started to transform the way products are distributed. Now, you can order almost anything online – a toaster, pants, food – and someone will come round to deliver it.

Access restrictions

At present, that someone is still most likely to travel in a light commercial vehicle, but that may change soon. E-commerce has increased delivery traffic, especially in densely populated urban centres – thus adding to the already high levels of pollution and congestion. 

Cities are striking back. Access restrictions to downtown areas are multiplying. Diesel is a major enemy, but the restrictions don’t just have to be based on a type of powertrain: vehicle size and noise level are other increasingly common criteria. This is starting to affect the ability of suppliers to deliver their goods to where they’re needed. 

So LCVs are out. They are being replaced by specially tailored ‘cargo tricycles’, vehicles designed for urban goods delivery. Although there’s no single model for these vehicles, they typically share a number of characteristics:

  • They are either entirely pedal-powered, partially pedal-powered (with an electric ‘boost’ in the latter case, as with electric bicycles), or entirely electric vehicles. 
  • Being partly or entirely electric means less operational cost, lower (or no) emissions and virtually no noise pollution.
  • They’re three-wheeled, as this provides a good compromise between easy manoeuvrability and the stability needed to carry a significant load.
  • Their TCO is a lot smaller than that of a traditional LCV.

Trial runs

Because they’re a mainly urban phenomenon, range anxiety is not an issue. And because they’re mainly electric, they more easily conform to the rules – present and future - restricting access to bigger, louder, more polluting vehicles. 

Recent months have seen a multiplication of trial runs with delivery trikes:

  • In March, the Royal Mail started a six-month trial of eight e-trikes (i.e. pedal-propelled, but battery-assisted), all with a cargo area designed to carry letters and small packages. The project aims to help the UK's national mail deliverer reduce its CO2 footprint. If successful, the pilot could be extended from Stratford, Cambridge and Sutton Coldfield to cover the entire UK.
  • At the end of March, Carrefour announced that it had chosen Scoobic Light, an e-trike powered by solar cells and with an eight-hour autonomy, to make its deliveries. The vehicle, currently trialled in Madrid, can carry 1,400 litres of cargo. The introduction of Scoobic Light is part of Carrefour's “commitment to reducing its environmental impact and promoting and defending sustainable development in all its activities”.
  • Also at the end of March, Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn unveiled a three-wheeled delivery robot. Developed by Swiss company TeleRetail, the autonomous trike is equipped with sensors to avoid obstacles and plots its course thanks to a virtual map straight to the door of the customer who placed an online order. The robot will be piloted through summer at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. 

Head start

Europe may have a head start when it comes to delivery trikes, both manned and unmanned, but there are some projects being developed in the U.S. as well. 

The T3, designed by Brooklyn startup Upcycles, weighs around 75 kg and can carry up to three times its weight. Currently being trialled in New York City, it is only partially electric (and mainly pedal-powered). That means it is classified as a bicycle rather than a truck. On the plus side: it can use New York’s growing network of bike lanes. A minus: it can’t park in truck loading zones. 

UPS is currently piloting cargo trike delivery in Pittsburgh and Portland (Oregon), but has also been experimenting with it since last year on the narrow streets of Rome (pictured).

While urban goods delivery seems the most appropriate application for three-wheeled vehicles, there is some evidence that trikes could also gain popularity as people-movers – perhaps absorbing and transcending the current vogue for electric scooters. 

Stable and comfortable

South Carolina-based operator Gotcha, which offers shared electric mobility in more than 20 US states, last month announced the introduction of electric ‘leaning’ trikes. It says they make for a more stable and comfortable ride than plain old e-scooters, on top of having a higher speed (45 km/h) and a longer range (65 km on a single charge). And they come with storage space big enough for a backpack.

It seems the time is ripe for a three-wheeled revolution, and the tide is rising. Soon, the streets of Europe and North America may start to look a bit more like their counterparts in Asia: shared by vehicles with two, three and four wheels. For westerners, the discovery that trikes can do things that two- and four-wheelers can’t. For those in the east, this is old news – literally: the reinvention of the wheel.

Authored by: Frank Jacobs