Auto review: Package didnít arrive on time? The 2019 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter may be the answer

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

January 15, 2018

STUTTGART, Germany ó A century ago, it wasnít unusual for households, even middle class households, to have servants. The number has declined precipitously due to technology, rendering hired help a luxury.

Need dinner fixed? Pull out your smartphone and request a prepared meal kit from any number of companies such as Blue Apron or HelloFresh. The mealís pre-measured ingredients come to your door; all you do is assemble them and cook. And why run to a store for a few household items when so many companies will deliver them to your door? Never mind sending the maid or driving yourself to the store, the store comes to you.

This has had a major impact on the shipping industry, which is growing as much as 10 percent annually according to McKinsey. In developing countries, such as India, growth is more than 100 percent.

"The biggest issue is, especially these days, is that there is not enough capacity out there to deliver the parcels to the customers," said Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

Compounding this growth is the need for instant gratification. Almost 25 percent of consumers will pay more for same-day delivery, according to McKinseyís report. This share is expected to increase given that more than 30 percent of younger consumers choose same-day delivery instead of regular delivery. But while consumers want quick delivery, only 2 percent are willing to pay enough to make instant delivery viable. This makes the final part of delivery, known as the last mile, a crucial part of the delivery. It also accounts more than 50 percent of delivery cost.

This logistical challenge is being tackled by one of e-commerceís key suppliers: Mercedes-Benz, which builds the full-size Sprinter van.

The automakerís forthcoming line of redesigned Sprinter vans, first introduced in the United States in 1995 and updated in 2010, are evolving into more than transportation as connectivity is integrated for the first time. Company officials see the new vans becoming an essential tool in a companyís IT infrastructure. Mornhinweg characterizes the third-generation Sprinters as "a unique, holistic transport solution: a completely networked van as part of the Internet of Things."

To facilitate that, the company is introducing Mercedes Pro, a telematics system that communicates between fleet manager and driver, providing vehicle status, vehicle logistics, fleet communications, maintenance management, accident recovery and a digital vehicle log. The web-based service enables managers to optimize a driverís efficiency by providing a vehicleís location, fuel level and maintenance intervals in real time. The system can even track the items in the Sprinters cargo hold. This allows companies to load the vehicle efficiently and track inventory, and provides an efficient way to alert a driver about job changes and reroute the van to guarantee to timely deliveries.

While final details of the new van will become available when it debuts next month, Mercedes-Benz officials have said that the new Sprinter will be offered in three wheelbases, four body lengths, three roof heights, four powertrains, and four instrument panels, which are offered in various configurations of storage compartments, cupholders, infotainment options, and climate controls. All models will have push-button start and new driver-assistance features.

Drivelines will include gas and diesel engines, although whether the battery-electric eSprinter model makes it to the United States remains to be seen, although it will be offered in Europe. "In some cities, it makes a lot of sense. Take New York City; itís the perfect kind of environment," Mornhinweg said. "A bit of demand has to be there or else itís a waste of money when the customer is not really there."

Further down the road, beyond electrification, Mercedes-Benz is looking at adding drones to enhance last mile delivery efficiency. "When we talk about delivery beyond the van, the sidewalk robots or drones, I think this will still take a while because you have to clear some regulations first," he said. "We are still doing pilots with American customers in the field of the last mile, we have some projects in place."

Unlike current Sprinters, the new vans will be built at a new $500 million facility in South Carolina.

"The Sprinter is the flagship of our commercial fleet and embodies our approach towards an integrated system solution," Mornhinweg said. "We see a lot of customers are asking for this kind of European style and we think itís great."