The Business of Mobility is a series of articles featuring business leaders in sustainable mobility.
Q&A with Duncan Forrester, Chief Communications Officer, Volta Trucks
Volta Trucks was founded by Carl-Magnus Norden in 2019 to fill a niche in the market for electric commercial vehicles, particularly last-mile urban trucking.
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Norden noted that in London trucks constituted only 4% of road miles but 26% of pedestrian fatalities and 78% of cyclist fatalities. He resolved to design an electric truck from the ground up that would solve not only for carbon emissions, but safety and driver ergonomics too.
Autonomy: About a year ago we interviewed you about Volta Trucks; what’s been happening in the past year.
Duncan: We’ve been very busy. We now have over 6,000 pre-orders for our vehicles, which equates to 1.3 billion Euro. And on the engineering side, after testing with so-called ‘mule’ vehicles, our engineers finalised the design and started building the first roadgoing ‘Design Verification’ prototypes.
Autonomy: Any big changes in that design since we last spoke?
Duncan: No, only small visual tweaks. The basic safety-first design principles remain. The electric motor is at the rear, the batteries are in the chassis rails (the safest place for them), and the cab experience is totally different to a conventional truck…
Autonomy: For the sake of safety and driver comfort I assume…
Duncan: Yes. The driver sits low to the ground, on the same eye-level as vulnerable road-users. The cab is a glass-house design that improves the driving experience and affords full visibility. There are no swing doors, they’re all sliding doors, which is safer for cyclists overtaking a stationary truck. And with the driver seated centrally, they always alight on the pavement side and not onto oncoming traffic.
Autonomy: These were your design principles when we spoke last year; it seems you were able to deliver on those with your prototypes?
Duncan: Yes, the first ‘design verification’ vehicles, which were made in Coventry, are now being put through rigorous road tests.
Autonomy: When is your commercial launch?
Duncan: Next we start making ‘production verification’ vehicles, which will be built by our contract manufacturing partner Steyr Automotive, in Austria, starting toward the end of 2022.
Autonomy: Which model is that?
Duncan: We will start with the Volta Zero, the world’s first all-electric 16-tonne vehicle designed for urban freight transport, with a range of 150-200 km. Six months later we will launch an 18-ton vehicle, which is much the same design just a bit longer for extra payload. And then, as announced earlier this year, we will also roll out 7.5-ton and 12-ton vehicles; again, with very similar design principles, but a similar vehicle. The 7.5-ton is important because in many European countries, these smaller vehicles can be driven with a passenger car driving licence and can operate seven days a week, where some cities limit larger trucks to six days a week. So by 2024/25 we will have four vehicles in production.
Autonomy: And that’s of course not counting the modifications and customer spec…including refrigeration.
Duncan: From launch, we will be offering certain customer specifications. One of these is a refrigerated cargo box. We’ve partnered with Carrier Transicold, a global company that specializes in engineless refrigeration. Their technology for converting power from the electric drivetrain to refrigeration has a 95% efficiency. So, it’s ideal for our trucks. And of course refrigerated trucks to carry food or perishables are an important component of last-mile urban logistics. Ultimately we will offer refrigeration across all our models.
Autonomy: Your order book includes 1,470 vehicles for DB Schenker and 1,000 for Petit Forestier, who rent out refrigerated trucks. These are two big European brands in the industry, but in terms of cities, where do you see the growth coming from?
Duncan: Paris is significant for us. They’re banning diesel trucks come 2023. So all customers are needing to investigate alternatives. In terms of emissions and total cost of ownership (TCO) you can’t beat electric for the urban short-haul use case.
Autonomy: What about the challenges of range and recharging?
Duncan: We offer clients the option of Truck as a Service. This involves checking the telemetry of their current fleet and advising them on how best to transition to electric. We do on-site assessments for working out how best to integrate charging infrastructure for the depot. And then we work with them all the way through from delivery of vehicles to services, maintenance, training and insurance. We show them how to reduce TCO and de-risk their short-haul fleet, reducing environmental risk, safety risk and financial risk.
Autonomy: This sounds very exciting but are you not getting ahead of yourself; it’s all very well for Paris to ban diesel trucks, but thus far electric trucks are not a commercial reality?
Duncan: We believe Paris is doing the right thing. Necessity (even if it is regulatory necessity) is the mother of innovation. A significant portion of our 6,000 pre-orders are for Parisian customers, who are not only avoiding the stick of regulation, they’re also attracted to the carrot of subsidies and incentives.
Autonomy: What about London?
Duncan: In contrast to Paris’s 2023 diesel-truck ban, London is only banning them in 2035 and 2040, that’s two complete replacement cycles of an internal combustion engine. If the UK is serious about climate change, it should accelerate the timelines for decarbonisation of trucks. We’ve shown how startups can respond to the challenge. Normally a vehicle development project takes five to seven years; we’ve condensed that into 24 months.
Autonomy: Thank you, and we look forward to seeing your emissions-free trucks on our streets here in Paris, which we believe is at the heart of the sustainable mobility revolution.