Arrival is the tech company that’s decided to make electric vans

From its micro-factory in Oxfordshire, Arrival is questioning car industry status quos.
20 October 2019

Arrival’s iconic van design. Source: Arrival

Arrival has been in ‘stealth mode’ since 2014, but it’s got a good reason for that. Nothing about the company is left to chance or guesswork. Starting from a “blank sheet” takes planning. 

From its designs, the materials it uses, the market it’s targeting, to the way it builds— it wants to fundamentally change the world of commercial vehicles.

Arrival is a UK-based electric vehicle maker. But the company’s CSO, Avinash Rugoobur, describes the company as more akin to a “tech company that’s decided to make vehicles.”

The analogy is apt, because there is nothing of the traditional car-making business about it, and that’s exactly why it could truly disrupt the commercial vehicle market. 

A future workhorse

Rugoobur told us that the company sees the electric vehicle (EV) landscape right now as “generation one”. 

That means they are traditional vehicles in design, where the vehicle manufacturer has replaced the engine with a battery, and that adds a price premium. 

Instead, Arrival sees its vehicles as the next iteration. The 700-strong team is focused on how to make EVs that cost the same as diesel-powered vans and last for 20 years— not the three-year lifespan of most commercial vans covering hundreds of miles day-to-day.

With pleasingly sci-fi aesthetics accommodating “best in class” payload capacity, the inherently low running costs of electric, and software— which will enable fleet management, vehicle health monitoring, predictive maintenance— Arrival is making the workhorse of the future. 

UPS is one of the firms Arrival has already worked with

UPS is one of the firms Arrival has already worked with. Source: Arrival

Commercial vehicles have been slow to electrify, and in the face of Brexit uncertainty, UK total sales are slowing. 

But that’s not to say demand isn’t there— in light of what Rugoobur calls the “Amazon effect”, vans are more necessary than ever, and those that can offer 50 percent lower cost of ownership simply by being electric could become some of the most attractive in the coming years. 

Essentially, Arrival wants to make a vehicle that is difficult for commercial buyers to ignore, particularly as businesses face increasing pressure to demonstrate they’re conscious of the environment, a consideration that certainly “matters to people, and matters to us,” Rugoobur said. 

“When you think about the miles being driven, and you think about the high utilization rate, and you think about the detriment to the environment, that’s a perfect place to actually be electrified.”

Bespoke builds

Early interest proves promising. Already, Arrival has conducted tests with Royal Mail, as far back as 2017, where the UK national mail service put three versions of its EV— ranging between 3.5, 6 and 7.5 tons— to task between its mail and distribution centers in London. 

Paul Gatti, Royal Mail Fleet’s Managing Director, said: “We have trialed electric trucks before but not of this type of innovative design.”  

It has also worked with logistics firms DHL and UPS. Rugobuur said one of Arrival’s key draws is its ability to work with clients much more closely, to create bespoke “building block” designs based on their specific needs.

“We’ve managed to create a vehicle that is profitable at low volume, because of the way we do our manufacturing.

“So, we’re profitable at the thousands of volumes rather than 100,000 volumes. It means that customers become more like partners and you can invite them to the development,” said Rugobuur. 

Arrival operates from a “micro-factory” in Oxfordshire. Instead of using conveyor belts, it has a cell-based approach that requires less space and fewer robots to build its vehicles. 

Around these static cells, manufacturing robots will maneuver and build onto the vehicle’s “skateboard” base— which houses the battery and motor and negates the need for the vehicle’s design to have a bonnet containing an engine. 

The vehicles have a modular, ‘plug and play’ design, so batteries can be swapped in and out, various machine interface adjustments can be made and if damaged— fairly common in heavy commercial use— its lightweight polypropylene can be quickly replaced or customized. 

“What we’ve done is focused on how you can reduce the actual cost of the vehicles at low and high volumes by taking a blank sheet approach to engineering a vehicle using the latest technology and software, and being vertically integrated for the core components,” said Rugobuur.

“So what we’ve spent a lot of time is figuring out how do you create the building blocks that can create a vehicle at the same price and electric.”

Questioning everything

It’s an entirely new way of building a vehicle, and doing it this way means faster builds, lower operating costs, fewer staff dedicated to manufacturing (more than half of its engineers are in software), and smaller factory footprints— which means it could build on the edge of towns and cities to meet demand quickly from its partners as and when required.  

Costing roughly the same as non-electric counterparts— Arrival’s vans are already seeing “significant sales interest”, as well as memoranda of understanding with multiple clients for potentially thousands of vehicles, without really doing any marketing. 

If Arrival succeeds in the commercial vehicle market when it launches next year, Rugoobur said the company will be ready to bring its ‘plug and play’ benefits to the consumer world soon. 

Its vehicles are also preparing for autonomy— in part, thanks to the Arrival team’s experience and technology it’s built competing and developing software in the Roborace autonomous vehicle racing series.

As a startup “the dare to dream” approach “can be considered normal,” said Rugoobur, but that doesn’t make the firm’s meticulous approach to research and development any less impressive. Ultimately, by questioning everything about the way vehicles have typically been built, some of which are century-old concepts, Arrival has been architected in a way that makes it flexible and reactive, ready to adapt to whichever way the market goes.