Shoonya Will Electrify Urban Deliveries in India—Is the World Next?

The 21st century has made buying things easier than ever. With a web search and the click of a mouse, you can buy almost anything: from a large-screen TV to lunch. And instead of traveling to the store, the goods come to you. Almost invisible to the consumer, the package is delivered from warehouse to your front door.

This change is happening around the world, including in the world’s second-most populous nation: India. But these vehicles don’t just deliver goods—they also bring pollution. Delivery vehicles contribute to the NOX, PM2.5, ozone, and other hazardous pollutants that take years off the lives of city dwellers in India and elsewhere, as well as the CO2 that drives climate change.

Additionally, the fuel burned to deliver packages represents a financial cost that consumers ultimately must pay for. The “final mile” in e-commerce commonly accounts for more than 50 percent of the total logistics cost.

We can have the ease and efficiency of e-commerce without the toxic tailpipe pollution, thanks to a new campaign by Indian government think tank NITI Aayog, RMI, and RMI India. This campaign has already mobilized around 40 leading industry players including e-commerce companies, food and grocery delivery companies, vehicle manufacturers, fleet aggregators, and charging infrastructure providers. And most essentially, it connects with consumers on the other end of the mouse click.

Inspired by the Sanskrit word for zero, the Shoonya campaign aims to accelerate the electrification of final-mile deliveries by creating a special label for electric deliveries. In doing so, the Shoonya brand will bring consumer awareness of zero-emissions options and create a differentiated market for zero-emissions deliveries, as well as helping e-commerce companies to distinguish their offerings from those of their competitors.

This in turn can accelerate the electrification of delivery fleets. And if successful, this model can be replicated in other nations including the United States.

Two-Wheelers, Three-Wheelers, and Trucks

E-commerce is transforming the way that goods and people move across the world. Between 2013 and 2017, India’s online retail market grew at an average rate of 53 percent each year and is expected to become a $150 billion market by 2022. By shifting the end-transportation of goods from the consumer, this has dramatically expanded the fleets of delivery vehicles.

In the United States, this has almost universally meant trucks, such as the box trucks used by UPS, Amazon, FedEx, etc. But in India, many goods are brought on two- and three-wheeled vehicles. These vehicles have fewer greenhouse gas emissions than trucks. But gas-powered two- and three-wheelers often have two-stroke engines, which emit more smoke, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter pollution.

This is no trivial matter; emissions from vehicles are a leading source of air pollution in Indian cities, which is taking an average of 9 years off of the lives of nearly half of Indians. As such, there is an urgent need to electrify these vehicles.

Mobilizing the Consumer

RMI India has been working on the electrification of transport—both for goods and people—for years through our Urban Mobility Labs. And as such we have developed deep relationships with both the government and industry.

But in designing Shoonya, RMI and RMI India decided to take a new tack to mobilize a new constituency—consumers—along with industry. In fact, the strength of Shoonya is that it brings together forces on both sides of a laptop screen—the consumers buying products online and the companies that are filling these orders are united in a common purpose.

Under this campaign, verified electric vehicles, driver uniforms, and packages will carry the Shoonya label, and a digital sticker option is also being explored. An online tracking platform will share the campaign’s impact through data such as vehicle kilometers electrified, carbon savings, criteria pollutant savings, and other benefits from clean delivery vehicles.

And through this campaign RMI, RMI India, and NITI Aayog will help to create a differentiated market for zero-emissions goods. The power of this approach is being demonstrated in other sectors, such as the automotive sector. In Europe, major automakers including Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and Scania are competing to see who can be the first to make cars and trucks with zero-emissions steel—despite this product commanding a premium.

Ultimately, consumers and e-commerce companies both want to participate in making a better world, but what is often lacking is information. The Shoonya label, backed by independent verification, provides the information to do this and the security so that consumers can know they are getting what they pay for.

Shoonya beyond India

Through Shoonya, e-commerce companies will gain experience with this differentiated market and may seek to distinguish their offerings in other markets as well. And while the delivery market in the United States may be different in terms of the vehicles used, the market mechanics are similar. “Shoonya is already engaging global e-commerce companies and has the potential to inspire similar campaigns well beyond India,” notes RMI Managing Director Clay Stranger.

And here the origin of Shoonya tells its own story. While we in the West call our numbers “Arabic” numerals, these numbers—including the zero—originate in Indian numerical systems, brought to wider use by the Persian scholar al-Khwarizmi. But in India, Shoonya is not only a mathematical concept. It speaks to infinite possibilities.

Shoonya has started in India but has the potential to transform the world. By empowering consumers and industry, it opens up a new world of possibilities and a better future for all nations.