It’s been more than 12 months since countries around the globe realised that they had to place populations in lockdown to keep them safe from the COVID-19 outbreak. While the measures have saved lives, they have also caused huge economic disruption and distress. In the face of the overwhelming doom and gloom, a rare ray of light has been the evidence of double digit falls in emissions in most of the world’s major cities.
It is too early to really tell what difference this may have made apart from many of us getting used to a quieter way of life for a few months, but it is likely to not be enough to curtail the long-term health effects of living in an urban sprawl. Considering that the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates that on-road diesel vehicles are responsible for nearly half of the health impacts of air pollution from vehicles worldwide (and two-thirds of impacts in India, France, Germany, and Italy), you can expect to see air quality return as a political hot potato as our roads return to normality. The transportation industry is likely to be presented with a choice of being green or being excluded over the next decade if it wants to continue to deliver into city and town centres.
Fortunately, on the horizon are a phalanx of electric vehicles that are capable of slotting into the infrastructure built for the medium and heavy duty trucks that logistics and delivery businesses rely on. The most obvious example would be the Tesla Semi but other major OEMs are following suit. Volvo, for example, re-stated at the end of 2020 that it was committed to adding a complete model range in 2021. Likewise, Mercedes’ eActros, which first debuted in 2016, will go into production this year.
T&FME has been told on many occasions that truck fleet buyers are interested in going electric but few, if any, see a pathway for making it affordable. Simply put, the TCO may be getting ever closer between traditional and electric but the upfront costs are daunting.
Furthermore, fleets are built around the re-sale of their vehicles and early adopters are unlikely to see a substantial return on their risky investment.
What if another financial model was available that mitigate a lot of that risk but allowed you to get onto the electric fleet powertrain? Meet Carl-Magnus Norden, co-Founder of Volta Trucks. Two years ago, Norden and his partner Kjell Walöen created the start-up to develop both an electric truck but also a new way of making it readily available to commercial vehicle fleet operators.
This ‘Truck-as-a-Service’ (TaaS) rental model, as the name suggests, means Volta takes on supplying the truck as well as array of other services such as infrastructure installation, electricity supply, insurance, tax, tyres for the vehicle and personnel training. Fleets are guaranteed 97 percent uptime in return for taking on full financing with monthly billing options.
Norden recently told one interviewer that the idea for Volta came after watching the Tesla 3 annoucement half a decade ago. Since the creation of the company (across Sweden, France and the UK) in 2019, a series of funding rounds have been passed and the Volta Zero truck, its first purpose-built full-electric large commercial vehicle, made its prototype debut in September last year. Customer trials will start later in 2021, with tens of thousands of trucks expected on the roads soon after series production starts around 12 months later.
Norden clearly believes that speed is of the essence for Volta and says that from the beginning he realised that it had to be as fast as possible to market and start reducing CO2 emissions and global warming “quickly”.
“When I learnt more, I understood the damage in cities with NOX, particulates, and noise pollution. Personally, I think we have to act very fast to stop global warming and CO2 emissions. Instead of talking, at Volta Trucks, we want to do something very tangible. Trucks are big polluters so, by working in that (HGV) sector, we can make a significant impact,” he says. “Professionally, in big technology shifts like electrification, there is an incredible opportunity that a small venture from outside the industry can contribute to change. You can see what Tesla did for cars. Volta Trucks can do the same for commercial vehicles.
“I also want to see a company with a positive impact on the world that grows and thrives. Taking an idea from concept, to initial drawings, first product and then to market, is fantastically stimulating and rewarding. The same goes for building a dedicated team who satisfy customers and other stakeholders. Also making cities more liveable, and having a positive impact on the world, and the people living in it. The combination of doing good, and building a profitable company, is the perfect combination that should be every entrepreneur’s dream.”
“Then, I realised the unacceptable statistics of accidents between trucks, bikes, and pedestrians. Also, the accident risks for truck drivers, which is an important reason for the severe driver shortage the industry currently faces. We are a very driver-centric company. We want to give drivers a good working environment that is as safe, modern, and pleasant as possible, and more akin to a premium car than a tired old truck. With an electric powertrain, we can reduce noise and vibration, which reduces stress and tiredness.
“This, in turn, reduces the risk of accidents, which is good for the driver, the people around the vehicle, and the fleet operator. Having Volta Zero vehicles on their fleets should support our fleet operators with recruiting and retaining the best drivers and give them a competitive advantage over fleets using existing legacy vehicles…And finally, I understood the fleet operators’ hesitation to start using trucks based on electrification technology they are not familiar with. With Volta Trucks, we needed to create a level of service that supported them and mitigated all their perceived risks and problems.”
Norden says that beyond the truck itself, Volta is looking at emissions in the whole supply chain.
“This is something we have started by using natural fibre composite materials, but we have to do much more by working with our suppliers. Most suppliers want to reduce the carbon footprint in their processes, and we have to work together, in partnership, to find further reductions.
“Another aspect is how we design, build, and maintain our trucks. By designing and manufacturing for maximum lifetime, and the minimum servicing and maintenance, we contribute to sustainability. The same goes for how we think about product at the ‘end of life’. Can we re-use parts? Is there the opportunity for a second life for our materials? Our long-term goal is to monitor the full supply chain, monitor active duty-time, and the impact of the truck at its ‘end of life’, so we can tell our fleet operator customers or their end-customers, that 1 kg transported 1 km on a Volta Zero, has limited total environmental impact.
“We want to give our customers the tools to measure their own sustainability, and help them improve their ability to measure outcomes, according to the principle: ‘what you cannot measure, you cannot control.”
Designing the Volta Zero
The firm claims that the Volta Zero is the world’s first purpose-built full-electric 16-tonne vehicle designed for inner-city freight deliveries, reducing the environmental impact of freight deliveries in city centres. Designed from the ground up with an operating pure-electric range of 150 – 200 kms (95 – 125 miles), the Volta Zero is expected to have replaced an estimated 180,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2025. The truck also uses the removal of the internal combustion engine to sit the driver in a central driving position, with a much lower seat height than a conventional truck, says Volta.
“Removing the internal combustion engine from the cabin and placing the electric drivetrain in the ladder chassis beneath the body gave us almost complete freedom for the cabin design and architecture,” explains the Volta Zero’s lead designer Carsten Astheimer. “In a traditionally designed truck, to minimise the cabin length, the driver is positioned above the engine placing them extremely high above the road.
“This creates safety issues with blind spots, and also makes the entry and exit hazardous, especially in urban delivery where a driver can make up to 60 deliveries or more in a day. We were able to completely change the cabin layout, creating a new type of vehicle – one which you could say is almost a hybrid between a bus, that is naturally designed to be driven safely in inner city environments, and a truck. With the Volta Zero, we have the driver visibility and safety from the front end of a bus, but with the rear load carrying capabilities of a truck.”
“As with all of our projects, the starting point is the user. In this case, it was the driver, optimising their position. So, we designed the truck from the inside out, firstly positioning the driver exactly where we wanted them to be, then building the cabin architecture around them. Finally, we designed the exterior, with a form language expressing the values of the brand.”
Ben Anstey, chief engineer, electrical and control systems for Volta Trucks, says that the driver and customer experience was always at the forefront of development: “Commercial vehicles perform a very specific task, and the cabin represents the workplace of the driver.
“As a workplace, it is imperative to consider all aspects of the functional design and human factors that lead to a safe, healthy, and efficient working environment,” says Anstey. “Due to the ground up approach we’ve taken thanks to departing from the traditional legacy cab-over-engine architecture, every decision can be made with the driver and functional usage in mind. Everything from the ingress and egress to the multiple touch points and seamless technology integration can be considered from first principles to determine the optimal solution to maximise the functional performance.
“Passenger vehicles tend to target a wide demographic of users, each with their own personal needs and expectations. This results in an amalgamation of complex features with an overly simplified front end and complex menu structures to configure all of the various options.
Within the existing commercial vehicle space, there is a high level of after-market offers where products are isolated, stand-alone, and not integrated. Starting from a blank sheet of paper presents a great opportunity to create a seamless integration of the technology, taking advantage of dedicated screens and clear, intuitive interfaces to allow the driver to focus on their primary activity, whilst still having all of the functionality available without extensive and intrusive system interference.”
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the demise of many great high-street brands, says Carl-Magnus Norden – but the “exponential rise” of online shopping should be embraced by fleets.
“I don’t see any short-term reversal of this. This trend away from high street shopping, further enhanced by the reduction in commuter’s spending in city centre workplaces, will accelerate a complete reappraisal of cities. Retail needs to transition from being a function to an experience, and draw buyers back in to attractive destinations,” he remarks. “This could be accelerated with the growth of localism, with local communities supporting local businesses. Another possible outcome could be a mass redevelopment of retail and office space into residential space, to deal with the chronic shortage of low-cost housing.”
He argues that these factors could change the face of the Smart City of the future completely, making them far more focussed around human needs than commercial or corporate needs.
“That said, as the producer of a full-electric large commercial vehicle that’s specifically designed for inner city distribution, this transition could have a positive effect on our business model, with many more residents to serve with their online deliveries,” he adds. “More and more consumers care about sustainability. Cities and governments are following in the same direction. B2C companies, consumers goods producers, retailers, fleet operators and their employees are all listening. The problem is that there are currently not enough viable electric trucks for them to buy. We hope that the rest of the industry will increase their pace of change so together, we can give our beautiful planet a chance to survive.”
He continues: “TaaS is perfectly suited for sustainability. The classic model for a vehicle manufacturer is to produce products needing a lot of servicing and maintenance, and also many spare parts. A very big part of their profit comes from servicing, maintenance and spare parts (as anybody who takes their private car for a service will know). So, the less servicing and spare parts required in an electric vehicle is good for our customers’ bottom line.
“As the customers of our trucks will primarily transport quite heavy goods, like frozen food, white goods, furniture, etc, weight carrying capacity is important. A normal 3.5t electric truck can seldom carry more than 1,000 kg of payload. One of our trucks can carry 6t of payload. So, we can replace five to six smaller 3.5t ton trucks with one Volta Zero, which will reduce congestion considerably.
“Also, for fleet operators, it is a big win, as they can reduce their number of vehicles, and number of drivers, that will also have a positive effect on their profitability. Our ambition is to produce the safest and most environmentally friendly truck driving in the world’s cities. But, long-term, TaaS, will be our biggest differentiator. Knowing that the team has approached each decision with a driver centric mindset, it will make me very proud to know that beyond transitioning to a sustainable logistics solution, that we have improved the driver environment to satisfy the next generation of logistics operators.”