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Q&A: Can the Last Mile Be Sustainable?

Lifting the hood with writer and delivery driver Daniel Gray
Illustration by Olivier Balez

On the road, and in his garage, New Jersey-based freelance writer and delivery driver Daniel Gray is investigating sustainability in the last-mile gig economy for various ongoing projects.

Jon Springer: Welcome to the Breakroom, Daniel. How did you and the solving the riddle of sustainable food delivery come together?

Daniel Gray: Im a freelance writer. I started my career with a long string of geekbooks,” or software tutorials, and pivoted to the automotive vertical in 2007. The eBay Motors Blog is my primary outlet these days and I enjoy the work immensely. As an automotive writer, Ive always focused on the weird relationship between efficiency and performance, and so I started looking at the gig economy as a way to reduce carbon emissions.

My book, Delivered on Sunshine,” is a roadmap for sustainable last-mile delivery. Im looking for an awesome agent and publisher. This started out as pure research, years back. I had no idea where it would lead, I just knew that it had to be covered. Ive always known the best way to write about a new topic is to throw yourself into it and learn first-hand. So, I signed up with Roadie first, followed by Amazon Flex, Instacart and DoorDash shortly after.  

I cant share many details yet, but in my garage, Im also building a system to make things run more efficiently. Basically, what I want to do is turn regular electric cars into outstanding electric delivery vehicles. Never in my life did I think the pinnacle of my existence would be to invent the world's most badass shopping cart.

Why is now the right time for a more sustainable approach to delivery?

While the transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft are addressing sustainability to varying degrees, the delivery networks have largely ignored it. 

The West Coast fires this summer—and the smoke theyve sent across America—hammer it home. This needs to be done now. We can depend on government support for these efforts, at least until the 2022 midterms.  

Point-to-point delivery with SUVs running on fossil fuel is not sustainable. There has to be better way.”

Delivery in the current economy is highly in demand, but outsourced. What role or responsibility should retailers play in the sustainability of the solutions they engage?

Walmart, Target and Amazon talk the sustainability talk. The big question is what actions theyre willing to take related to last-mile grocery delivery, which is so highly inefficient and messy.

Speed cant be their only solution to the cold chain. You can’t just shovel disposable bags into a car and get somewhere in 15 minutes. Point-to-point delivery with SUVs running on fossil fuel is not sustainable. There has to be better way.

Everybody is looking to leverage crowdsourced because its an easy fix, but they dont want to own it. They dont want to get stuck with a Betamax when something better comes along.

Do you have a sense of the consumer appetite for more sustainable delivery? Would they pay up” for it?

It depends on the retailers customer base. A percentage of customers at the chains like Sprouts and Whole Foods might be willing to pay more, as well as some of the high-end chains, like Wegmans. But cheap always wins.

Here’s the kicker—sustainable delivery is sustainable on every level. It should cost the retailer less in the long run, if done right. No extra cost for the consumer, and more profitable for the driver. 

What will your work mean for gig-economy drivers?Whats their reaction been?

For drivers, winning at the delivery gig game requires a bit of math. Id wager that the majority of drivers fail to do that, for varying reasons. A cost-effective and efficient vehicle is essential. Optimized electric vehicles change everything. The big question is how to make them available, and affordable.

Lightning Round

Best place to shop for food in Central Jersey? In the summertime, the local farmers markets and farm stands.

Springsteen on Broadway?” Worth it? My wife bought the tickets, and Id reckon shed say yes. Beautiful show. A renewal of faith. 

Weirdest thing you have ever been asked to deliver? A Salt Lick for Tractor Supply.

First car you ever owned? 1966 GTO Ragtop. My second car was also a 1966 GTO Ragtop.

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