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TNB talks to Rob Fowler, CEO of Volta Trucks

20 August 2020 #Features & Interviews #TNB News

Leading the charge at Volta Trucks, CEO Rob Fowler has over a decade of experience in the logistics sector. We speak to him about the fully-electric commercial vehicle manufacturer’s plans for the future and the introduction of its first vehicle, the Zero.

TNB: Volta Trucks has been using sustainable materials for the Zero’s body, along with the electric drivetrain. Does that mean higher build costs, and ultimately higher cost to the buyer? 

RF: Sustainability is a core pillar of our business and we see it with the operators that we are engaging with and, more significantly, with both consumers and companies in general. Our operation is around delivering a vehicle with a total cost of ownership comparable to that of a diesel vehicle. We’ve achieved that, so while composite materials are more expensive in some areas, we’ve been able to save in others, which allow us to get to that comparable total cost of ownership (TCO). This is a significant marker for logistics operators, because it simplifies the business case for changing to electric vehicles.

In time the increased use of these sustainable materials may bring costs down further, but their use also starts to fix end-of-life problems. Improving the recycling and disposal of vehicles will make a colossal difference. I imagine the use of different types of renewable and composite type materials in commercial vehicle construction will increase in future, particularly where you’ve large panelling which is non-structural and not used in impact zones.

TNB: The Volta Zero trial in London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone with DPD starts in Q2. What will you be looking for?

RF: It’s about looking at both the customers that we have trials with and the customer that we are taking orders or deposits from. It’s about deploying our vehicles into as many different use cases as we can do, to allow us to build the best vehicle we can. The whole purpose of any trial is to learn – we want to understand how operators work, how they want their vehicles configured, how we can design the best products. We don’t necessarily want to say to operators, ‘This is what we’ve built – do you want to buy it?’ We want to come out and say that we’ve listened to what you want and built a vehicle that addresses the challenges that you have. It’s also about helping operators electrify, because they have their own sustainability objectives. Both sides will be learning. It’s very much a partnership process with our customers, we want to learn from them as much as they want to learn about the vehicle.

TNB: The Volta Zero is expected to have an official range of between 95-125 miles, but how realistic is that and how do you expect that to increase?

RF: We’re looking at vehicle use around city centres. The range of the Zero is more than capable because although vehicles may operate for a long time, they generally don’t travel a massive distance. Some of our customers tell us that they are running at just 12-19 miles per day.  So, we have a battery that gives the option of going up to 124 miles, which allows operators the flexibility to double up delivery routes. However, we’re comfortable with the real-world range – we don’t believe that we’ve over-estimated or even been particularly aggressive. I know from being an operator in the past that there’s nothing more frustrating than being told that you’re getting a vehicle that can do something and then you find that that the vehicle can’t deliver on its billing.

TNB: The Volta Trucks Zero is designed for inner-city delivery – are you looking to develop trucks for long-haul? How feasible is that?

RF: Our focus is city centres: that’s where air quality is worse, and that’s where safety is vital – we are trying to build the safest commercial vehicle on the road. We do see a longer term increase in range coming, maybe as a result of battery efficiency or chemical composition, but we are not looking to move into the long-haul, articulated HGV solution. That’s not where this business is aiming for, we are focused on the city centre distribution challenge.

TNB: The logistics industry has a recruitment problem, do you think that stylish design, and modern architecture inside the cab will help driver recruitment?

RF: We want to make the experience of driving a Volta Trucks Zero just like driving a high-end premium car, and not like a truck. We also want to make the driver’s life as easy as we can so there are small details like a low-step entry height, because getting in and out of the vehicle thirty times a day isn’t great. You can also access the vehicle from both sides, so that you’re not entering into lanes of traffic. But actually, what attracts people is the technological innovation associated with the vehicle. That’s why people are so fascinated by Tesla. We see an opportunity where people will see the vehicle as a piece of technology, as much as they see a truck.

For operators, if you can offer vehicles that are better to drive, it can only improve your recruitment when people are looking to find another role. Would you rather work for a company that gives you a 10 year-old beaten up truck, or would you rather work for a company who gives you a shiny new Volta Trucks vehicle which is easy to drive, easier to access, and safer? Design aspects like 220 degree visibility are obviously about reducing blind spots and we know that drivers don’t want to be involved in accidents. So, anything we can do to mitigate that, make drivers’ lives easier, and reduce stress of driving a vehicle, is something worthwhile for us to commit to as a business.

TNB: Do you think that trucks have a public image problem, and do you think the Volta Trucks can change that?

RF: Freight inside a city centre is its lifeblood. Nearly everything to buy from a shop, café or restaurant is delivered by a commercial vehicle, but there are a wide range of trade requirements and it’s usually more efficient to deliver produce on a 16 tonne vehicle than use three 3.5 tonne vehicles. This means we can’t change the perception of all trucks, but I absolutely see Volta Trucks as part of a new generation of vehicles. The design parameters, the way it’s built, the use of materials that drive the positioning, the user experience,  and the aesthetics of the truck all come together to create what feels like an entirely different product.

I believe that trucking can change and I genuinely believe that logistics can become a much greener industry. There is a willingness to change amongst society, and operators are wanting to make that change and are under pressure from their customers to make that change. All of this sentiment coming together has the potential to make a significant impact on the way that the logistics industry works.

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