Walmart to Buy 4,500 Electric Delivery Vans That Look Like Toasters

Because as they used to say about Volkswagen vans: "Got a lot to carry? Get a box."

Walmart version of Canoo
Canoo goes to Walmart.


Canoo, the electric car that looks like a toaster, is selling 4,500 vans to Walmart to do "last mile" deliveries. The deal has an option for Walmart to buy up to 10,000 of the little boxes. This is an interesting business story: In our earlier coverage, many readers doubted Canoo would ever come to market. But it is also an important design story. 

The delivery van version of the Canoo is called a "lifestyle delivery vehicle" or LDV. Canoo CEO Tony Aquila describes its virtues in a statement: "Our LDV has the turning radius of a small passenger vehicle on a parking friendly, compact footprint, yet the payload and cargo space of a commercial delivery vehicle. This is the winning algorithm to seriously compete in the last mile delivery race, globally."

Let's look at this "algorithm" again and why it is so brilliant for this function. In our first post, titled "Why Shouldn't an Electric Car Look Like a Toaster?" we noted the designers started with no preconceptions of what an electric vehicle should look like or how it should be engineered.

Canoo Skateboard
Canoo Skateboard.


They took the "skateboard" idea and squished the working parts of the car into the bottom of the vehicle, which was not a new idea—Amory Lovins proposed this decades ago and GM played with it in its AUTOnomy concept in 2002. Stuart Hart described it in a 2010 book:

"The skateboard forms the backbone for the product concept, which can then take on virtually any form or functionality. Body types and seating capacity can be modularly designed and installed on the skateboard in a way that allows for maximum flexibility. Want an SUV? Lease an SUV body and interior. Want a sedan? Switch to this body type as you see fit. What's more, GM has moved to radically simplify the vehicle's design. Apart from the electric motors and the wheels, there are virtually no moving parts: The steering and all the vehicle's functions are controlled electronically using wireless technology."

Decades later, Canoo does exactly this: it can be an SUV, a pickup, or now, a delivery van. This is how Canoo describes it:

"As with all Canoo vehicles, the LDV is built on a proprietary multi-purpose platform (MPP) architecture that integrates the motors, battery module, and other critical driving components. The LDV has a last mile delivery optimized cabin and customized cargo space. Canoo is utilizing true steer by wire technology, reducing moving parts and cabin intrusion, resulting in more usable interior space, better driver ergonomics and the addition of a panoramic window to improve road visibility." 
Got lots to carry? get a box!


Perhaps an even better precedent is the Volkswagen Van, which was essentially a skateboard with an air-cooled engine in the rear. They understood, as Canoo does, that it is a simple concept: "Got a lot to carry? Get a box." 

But because it looks like a box and doesn't have a silly front end making it look like a truck, the Canoo has the exterior dimensions of a compact car while having 120 cubic feet of cargo volume.

There are other reasons that I keep writing about Canoo. Being smaller, it is also lighter, and most importantly, it's not skeuomorphic, designed to look like an older object. It's ... a box. 

Canoo van at work
The Canoo lifestyle vehicle at work.


It's a small box, compared to some of the usual delivery vans blocking our bike lanes, but it's appropriate for Walmart's business model. While they do have big fulfillment centers like Amazon, they also fulfill orders from their 3,800 stores that are within 10 miles of 90% of the U.S. population. It's really a last 10-mile problem, so the smaller vehicle makes sense in the suburban markets where you find most of the Walmarts, but they use the conventional terminology.

“We’re thrilled to continue diversifying our last mile delivery fleet with Canoo’s unique and sustainably focused all-electric technology which will provide our associates with safe, ergonomic delivery vehicles,” said David Guggina, senior vice president of innovation and automation of Walmart U.S.

If there is one bone to pick in this whole story, it is Tony Aquila's statement saying about the Canoo, "This is the winning algorithm." Just as I have always hated how the tech industry co-opted the term "architect," here I hate the use of the word "algorithm," defined by Investopedia as "a set of instructions for solving a problem or accomplishing a task. One common example of an algorithm is a recipe, which consists of specific instructions for preparing a dish or meal."

The Canoo is more than a set of instructions or a recipe; it is a great design created by designers, based on a heritage going back to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Car through the Volkswagen bus and Amory Lovins's skateboard. That's so much more than an algorithm.