Takeovers and mergers in the freight operating sector are normally of only peripheral concern to readers of Automotive World. But the recent successful bid by the world’s largest parcel carrier, UPS, to gain control of its Netherlands-based rival TNT, has some considerable significance for van manufacturers.
UPS is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, though it now operates in some 220 countries and territories. Its revenue last year was US$53bn. At the last count it had 88,000 parcel collection/delivery vans in service worldwide, all finished in the readily-identifiable UPS brown livery.
Small consignment freight nearly always ‘cubes out’ before the chassis gross weight rating is reached; hence the requirement for maximum usable load volume in parcel vans. For UPS that led, historically, to a van design with completely vertical sides, where no loadspace is lost through styling or aerodynamic considerations.
Being such a huge operator, it inevitably calls the tune on vehicle specifications. Small consignment freight nearly always ‘cubes out’ before the chassis gross weight rating is reached; hence the requirement for maximum usable load volume in parcel vans. For UPS that led, historically, to a van design with completely vertical sides, where no loadspace is lost through styling or aerodynamic considerations. The company also demands direct walk-in access from the cab into the loadspace, enabling a 6ft (1.83m) driver making frequent stops to reach smaller packages without stooping or having to open the rear doors.
No vans meeting those requirements have ever been readily available off the shelf from an established commercial vehicle manufacturer. UPS long ago drew up a specification and invited chassis manufacturers such as GMC and Ford, collaborating with specialised bodybuilders, to produce a unique van design. In the interests of durability the bodywork was to be all aluminium, which also incidentally usefully saved weight. Elegant styling was sacrificed for functionality in the glass-fibre moulded bonnet and nose structure.
In recent years UPS vans in North America have been bodied by Grumman, a company better known in the aerospace and defence sector. In Europe, outwardly almost identical vans for UPS – but with no manufacturer’s badge – are Mercedes, Volkswagen or Iveco-based. Unusually, those manufacturers supply ‘bare’ chassis – ie with no cab or scuttle – to the bodybuilder. UPS is secretive about its suppliers but Spier Fahrzeugwerk of Steinheim, Germany is understood to have been prominent among them.
A key question is whether the future absorption of TNT into the UPS fleet will involve the gradual replacement of TNT’s factory-built vans with ‘UPS conceived’ vehicles, whose design has changed little in over 40 years.
While drivers appreciate the ergonomic practicality of UPS vans, many in Europe who have previously driven modern ‘factory built’ panel vans of similar size such as the Mercedes Sprinter, Iveco Daily and VW Crafter, are surprised by the lack of refinement in the ‘UPS specials’, particularly with regard to the all-important NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) standards.
A key question is whether the future absorption of TNT into the UPS fleet will involve the gradual replacement of TNT’s factory-built vans with ‘UPS conceived’ vehicles, whose design has changed little in over 40 years. A follow-up question is how TNT’s drivers would react to such a fleet renewal policy, which most would probably regard as a retrograde step?
But possibly, like Paccar which acquired DAF some 20 years ago, UPS could come to the conclusion that European parcel carriers, and TNT in particular, had vehicle technology which should not be summarily cast aside.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Alan Bunting has a background in engineering, and has been writing on commercial vehicle and powertrain related topics since the 1960s. He has been an Automotive World contributor since 1996.
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