A weight off their shoulders

2 min read

A team of European postal companies, including the Royal Mail, is developing electric mobility devices to help urban postmen with their rounds.

The two-year €5.89m (£3.95m) New Electric Postman Helper (NEPH) project, due to end this December, aims to develop innovative battery-powered electric powertrain systems that can be integrated into personal mobility devices such as bikes, scooters and trolleys.

The prototypes have yet to be unveiled, and exact details of their design are being kept under wraps, but according to the Royal Mail they should be available for testing shortly after the project ends.

'In every country across Europe the posting of a typical written letter is declining, but postal traffic volume is rising,' said Jan Kojro, principal engineer, collection and delivery, at Royal Mail Engineering. 'There are now more packages and more large letters. A post round may mean delivering 90-100kg, so we are looking to get this weight off the shoulder as it is a health and safety issue. The hope is that by taking away the strain we could also attract more workers such as the semi-retired.'

The Royal Mail delivers to 27 million addresses and includes 37,000 bicycles among its fleet. Some electric vans have been used since 1998, and the company has also tested other electric vehicles in the past, though these have not been adopted.

Large strain

Devices such as electric bicycles exist for the consumer market, but these are not suitable for postmen owing to the demands of the job. As well as having to carry a large load, a postal vehicle may have to stop and start 200-300 times on each round, which puts a large strain on the battery because of the amount of torque required on each start-up.

The NEPH project is therefore specifically designing a powertrain system with this requirement in mind.

The research has consisted of two stages. The first year involved the development of an innovative powertrain system, while the second consisted of building a demonstrator and also researching the need for associated services such as those covering maintenance of the vehicles.

The project is co-ordinated by French battery manufacturer Saft, assisted by Belgian university Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Belgian postal firm Posteurop. The electric motors are being manufactured by Germany's Heinzmann.

As well as the Royal Mail, postal companies involved include Belgium's De Poste, the Finland Post Corporation, La Poste of France, Poste Italiane, and TPG Post from The Netherlands.

During the demonstration and testing phase at the end of this year, the electric system range will be sold to mobility device producers such as bicycle manufacturers. Postal services will carry out operating tests in various European cities.

Previous pan-European or national projects such as E-Tour and Newride have tested the general performance of electric-powered mopeds and bicycles for consumers such as commuters. However, E-Tour showed that the performance of electric bicycles is often disappointing owing to their lack of reliability, lack of range, and the weight and expense of the machine involved.

As the powertrain system is a key component of these electric mobility devices, the main objective of the project was to improve electric and mechanical reliability. This was achieved by developing a motor system based on advanced batteries such as nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion devices.

The powertrain system is to include intelligent energy management to maximise efficient use of the battery. As a result, French battery manufacturer Saft has developed a range of battery systems that will be integrated into various systems, which can be fitted to vehicles that suit the user's needs.

Managing efficiency

Both technologies need to be managed to be efficient, which means providing electrical energy when requested during long periods. The batteries are designed to communicate both with each other and between cells and modules. They will also feature charge management systems such as cell balancing, voltage current monitoring and charger management.

Once the project is complete, the concept may be sold in the consumer mobility market.