A talk with Essa al-Saleh, CEO of Volta Trucks

“...we really will be the leading full-electric commercial vehicle manufacturer”

Volta Trucks is the start-up electric vehicle manufacturer that recently has turned heads with its "Volta Zero". It's their first vehicle and the world’s first purpose-built full-electric 16-tonne commercial vehicle designed specifically for inner-city parcel and freight distribution. The Volta Zero is currently undertaking trials in some of Europe’s largest cities. Orders have already been taken from companies and they are set to be delivered when production starts in 2022. We took the opportunity and talked to the newly appointed CEO of Volta Trucks, Essa al-Saleh, about their ambitious plans, glasshouse-style cabin designs, their plans for the USA and the narrow streets in European city centers.

Interviewer: Very little time has passed between the founding of Volta Trucks in May 2019 and the first series of tests at the end of 2020. The first deliveries to regular customers should be due by the end of 2021. What do you think has been the biggest challenge for Volta so far? Were there any previous projects on which your company could build before it was founded in 2019?

Essa al-Saleh: Building and scaling a company is always a large challenge, and while you often understand what the destination looks like, the journey from the start to success is never linear so we need to be agile. Nevertheless, we are entering this market at a pivotal moment of a major transition from an internal combustion engine ecosystem towards a zero-emission ecosystem with battery vehicles playing a major role. This creates tremendous opportunities for us with our re-imagined truck where everything about it has been created from the ground up, addressing not only the expected economics of our customer but also of the health and safety factors of the driver and the environment around them while driving in an urban setting. To realize this potential, we have launched our first demonstrator in September last year creating a lot of excitement and energy. We have assembled an incredible group of people who have a passion to drive impact and do something different which makes our journey together exciting, energizing and rewarding.

The first thing that strikes you when you look at the vehicle is the futuristic look and the unusual layout of the driver's cab. In this way, the truck looks more like a “bigger than average delivery van”. The driver will definitely be happy with that, but why was the entry point chosen so low?

Volta Trucks was founded by Carl-Magnus Norden based on two major principles. The first was his dissatisfaction with the pace of change and solutions towards addressing the world’s carbon problem. The second was his intense focus on understanding customer needs and finding solutions for them. Based on these principles, our truck design seeks to address systemic health and safety issues around the driver. The design allows the drivers to have wide visibility around them, supported by a 360-degree camera system. In addition, the central seating position and low-step entry means that the driver can get in and out of the vehicle with ease, and always step onto the pavement rather than into oncoming traffic, as they often jump in or out of the truck more than 50 times a day. We believe by having this focus, we create a better working environment for drivers which helps attract them to our trucks.

One advantage of e-vehicles is their low level of noise pollution. On the one hand, this could enable the truck to deliver goods to residential areas at night in the future. On the other hand, the lack of noise can also be dangerous for passers-by. People could miss the large 16-ton vehicle and dangerous situations in city centres could arise. Are you planning to use warning tones or artificial engine noises via loudspeakers?

Correct. From 1 July 2019, it has been an EU legal requirement for an electric vehicle to use an Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System that makes a noise when reversing or running at speeds up to 20km/h, to alert other road users around the vehicle. With its glasshouse-style cab design and 220-degrees of driver visibility, the Volta Zero has been designed to be the safest commercial vehicle and to operate safely amongst vulnerable road users in city centre environments. An audible awareness of the vehicle is an important contributor to this.

In the US, electric trucks are also a big issue. Would you consider entering the market in the next few years, for example in a market niche for urban delivery vehicles?

Yes, our Road-to-Zero Emissions strategy confirms that the US is a future target market for us. We will adopt a Europe-first roll out, but I am sure that the US will be a significant market for us in due course.

Do you think the commercial vehicle industry is moving fast enough when it comes to e-mobility? In comparison, there are already many electric cars on the road. There was a hype about certain new car brands and many established manufacturers are now offering great e-cars too, witnessing high numbers of registrations. In comparison to that, it is very quiet with trucks. Where do you think this is coming from? What is the biggest challenge to convince a freight carrier company?

In short, no, I believe that there isn’t enough pace of development in the sector, but this also provides an opportunity for us to accelerate our plans, and to provide needed product into the marketplace. The commercial vehicle world is facing legislative restrictions, and is more aggressive than passenger cars in some countries like France, but the incentives are less widespread, and the decision-making process with commercial vehicles is more complex than passenger cars. For this reason, we have launched our Truck as a Service proposition, which supports fleet managers with every step that they need to take to migrate to electric vehicles. For a fleet manager, purchasing yet another internal combustion engine vehicle is easy because it’s what they’ve always done, but it’s not going to help solve the climate emergency the planet faces. To purchase an electric truck, they need to consider everything from afresh, from financing, insurance, charging and maintenance. With Truck as a Service, we want to be their service provider and business partner, helping fleet managers with all their electrification needs to help support their migration to electric commercial vehicles.

The Volta Zero is undergoing extensive trials

The level of demand has increased dramatically and as a result, we have recently increased our sales volume expectations to over 27,000 vehicles per year by 2025. By then, with four models in production and operating first in European, then in North American, and ultimately in key Asian cities, we really will be the leading full-electric commercial vehicle manufacturer.

Essa al-Saleh sums up Volta Trucks’ ambitious plans for the next years and how they want to become a significant contributor to the future vision of zero-emission cities all over the world.

Other large – let’s say – “traditional” car manufacturers are already offering e-trucks respectively announced their own electric truck programs. What distinguishes Volta - as a start-up - in comparison to "the old ones" and differentiates you as a company from the other companies?

There are limited examples of concept and demonstrator electric commercial vehicles from the established manufacturers, but very little actual volume being supplied into the market at this point. The most significant difference between Volta Trucks and the existing competition is that, understandably, today’s manufacturers are using their current platforms and vehicle architectures and installing an electric drivetrain into them. For Volta Trucks, approaching the electric commercial vehicle from a blank sheet of paper, we can harness all the design and packaging opportunities that the removal of the internal combustion engine offers, and completely redesign the cab and driver working environment. It’s this that facilitates the aforementioned innovative cab design So, for Volta Trucks, the electric powertrain is an enabler, not the only purpose, but it helps us create the safer, more sustainable vehicles that our customers are wanting. Finally, but importantly, we are aiming to get full electric vehicles onto the roads as quickly as possible, to meet customer demand and to accelerate the pace of decarbonisation of our city centres. This contrasts with the less-than-ambitious 2035-40 deadlines set by the established players.

There are various battery systems that many normal consumers hardly understand in their technical varieties. Which approach did Volta Trucks choose and how big will the battery be? In recent years there have been reports of isolated battery fires in electric cars. Will the truck have a special safety cell around the battery? Does a producer of e-trucks have to pay special attention to the chassis or vehicle-body of its truck?

With safety at the heart of our brand, battery safety is vitally important. For this reason, we have selected Proterra, one of the world’s leading electric vehicle battery providers, as our supplier. With our ground-up design approach, we have located the battery in the centre of the vehicle in between the chassis rails which is the safest location in the event of an accident. As regards battery size, the Volta Zero is specifically designed as a city centre delivery vehicle and we have fitted it with a battery to offer 150-200kms of range, which is more than sufficient for our customer’s needs. 

Recently, it was not just electromobility that seemed to have had a tailwind. Hydrogen-powered trucks are also currently being tested intensively and are to be brought to market maturity. Do you think that there could emerge a competition in the freight transport market between those two types of sustainable engines?

Unlike passenger cars, where the dominant technology is clearly electrification, we see that in commercial vehicles, there will likely be several different technology solutions depending on the use of the vehicle. For short distance and last mile, like the Volta Zero has been designed for, electric will be the solution. For longer distance, a combination of electric, hydrogen and potentially other technologies could be suitable.

Volta Trucks first model called "Zero" has been on trials since September 2020 and, based on the performance data, is a classic 16-ton delivery truck. Are other models or modifications of the current model planned? Could there be refrigerated trucks for transporting food and pharmaceuticals? Are you planning to increase the range for overland transport?

In addition to the existing 16 tonne Volta Zero, we have confirmed that we will also launch full electric 7.5 tonne, 12 tonne and 19 tonne models to meet the demands from our customers. We are also working on ambient and refrigerated versions of the Volta Zero, so we will have a portfolio of product offer by 2025.

What about agility while delivering? Many European city centre’s want to remove internal combustion engines from city centres. In addition, many urban conurbations in Europe have old, narrow city centres and pedestrian zones. Where does the vehicle reach its limits?

We have designed the Volta Zero to work perfectly for middle and last mile deliveries, and city centre logistics. Even though it’s a large 16 tonne vehicle, its cab design and visibility makes is easy to manoeuvre in narrow city centre streets. This design has the added benefit of allowing fleet managers to remove several van-size vehicles from their fleets and use a smaller number of Volta Zero vehicles. This will reduce costs for the fleet operator, but also reduce traffic congestion to benefit inhabitants. 

The drivetrain and the batteries will be provided by US-American producers. Will the rest of the truck be manufactured in Europe? Has Volta Trucks already decided in which country the final production will start?

We will confirm the location of our first manufacturing facility in the coming weeks, but it will be in Europe.

What is the next stage in Volta Trucks development? What sales figures and next steps are you planning for the near future?

We are fully focused on bringing the 16 tonne Volta Zero to market as quickly as possible, to meet our customers’ demands and to support the decarbonization of city centre environments. We will build our first Pilot Fleet of vehicles for customer evaluation at the end of this year, with production of customer-specification vehicles starting about 12 months afterwards. The level of demand has increased dramatically and as a result, we have recently increased our sales volume expectations to over 27,000 vehicles per year by 2025. By then, with four models in production and operating first in European, then in North American, and ultimately in key Asian cities, we really will be the leading full-electric commercial vehicle manufacturer.

Thank you for the interview!