Meet URB-E, an EV-powered container system for urban delivery

CEO Charles Jolley talks about the startup's modular infrastructure for the modern city.

an urb-e bike and container

An URB-E container system. (Courtesy image)

Welcome to Near Future. In this weekly feature, The Current spotlights innovations powering the next wave of commerce.

Ecommerce adoption rewires how we shop.

Rather than going out to browse and purchase items by default, more and more options raise expectations that the goods will come to us.

That doesn’t only change how businesses get items to customers. It also changes the urban environment.

As package volume increases, delivery trucks and vans are a growing presence on city streets. Instant delivery brings more cars bringing grocery orders and convenience items.

Charles Jolley looks at this increasing congestion, and sees room for a more modular approach to delivering items over the last mile.

“In the same way containers made global shipping much more efficient, we're wanting to do basically the same thing for the city,” Jolley said.

A former Apple executive who helped launch iCloud and entrepreneur who led Ozlo and Strobe to acquisition by Facebook, Jolley is the CEO of URB-E.

The company developed a system to transport goods in small containers, ferried by electric bicycles. These containers are designed to be kept in the back of a grocery store or at a microwarehouse location that’s close to consumers. They’re big enough to fit many orders. So once they are filled, they can deliver to multiple sites. Once emptied, the containers can be moved to different fulfillment sites, where needed.

The sizes of containers can vary depending on the cargo, but they’re all designed to fit on bike lanes. When compared to vans, these systems reduce congestion and cut down on the amount of energy being used to transport items, Jolley said. Using electric vehicles means that energy consumption isn’t producing emissions, either.

To keep the EVs running, the company has its own supply chain of swappable batteries and a charging network, as well. These batteries are transported in the containers to locations where they are needed, and can be used all day. This reduces the need for fixed chargers.

It’s all designed to optimize for efficiency. As the number of packages continues to increase alongside expectations for fast delivery times, that will become a must, Jolley said. Sending a container that’s configured for a business’ needs to transport its goods from a location that’s close to consumers can serve as the enabler for fast delivery models that don’t lose money.

“Because delivery is becoming so common, the volume is increasing, and that's where systems like ours really matter,” Jolley said. “When you have high volumes, then you can use technology to bring down the cost of delivery.”

Currently working in New York and Los Angeles, URB-E is in the early stages of rollout. It has partnerships with logistics service AxleHire to provide containers to microhubs, and tech-enabled farming company Square Roots to deliver produce grown with hydroponics. Jolley expects hundreds of vehicles to be on the road this year. As it gets more infrastructure built out going forward, Jolley said the company is interested in expanding to offer deliveries between businesses.

Jolley sees URB-E’s model for infrastructure weaving into the fabric of the modern city. At the same time, he sees sustainability as both an environmental and business imperative.

“Sustainable solutions can’t be a product that you’ve managed to make green,”he said. “The element that makes it green or sustainable also has to make it a good business call.”

Those who achieve success figure out both. URB-E believes it has the model to get there.

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