Meet Ian Collins, Engineering Director of Volta Trucks, to understand the opportunities and challenges of developing the first purpose-built full electric large commercial vehicle

By Volta Trucks

Once designers have designed a vehicle, can you outline the process that engineers go through to take the design from drawings through to a real vehicle.

“Designers and engineers work in collaboration throughout the vehicle development process. In the earliest stages, designers take the lead with the product concept, with the engineers supporting with input on regulatory compliance, position and size of the main components, material and manufacturing options etc. As the design matures, the engineering team develops the technical concept from a high-level specification of the targets such as vehicle performance, features and attributes, through to the specification and design of all the components, to a fully detailed digital model of the vehicle. This digital model can be used to analyse the expected performance of the vehicle, simulate the assembly process to guide the manufacturing plant design, and to confirm that the appearance and functional design intent of the vehicle has been met before we proceed to building prototypes.

As prototype parts are manufactured, we test each part and system to make sure it meets the targets specified. By the time we have built a full vehicle, we know that each component works correctly and can concentrate on the optimisation of vehicle attributes such as durability, comfort, driving performance and safety. In this test phase, the prototype vehicle is subjected to a wide range of different operating conditions. For example, we expose it to very low and very high temperatures, poor quality roads and unusual loading conditions. We do this so that we can make any required adjustments to the design and engineering to ensure that the final product will exceed our customer’s expectations.

In the final phase, the design and engineering data is approved and released to suppliers for final component manufacturing tooling and equipment to be made. Again, we build up the final vehicle part by part, testing and qualifying each part individually before we build a final fleet of vehicles to prove the performance, quality, and consistency of the final product. A key part of this stage is certification, when the approval authorities require test and measurement data to confirm that each regulation has been met so that we can begin series production and deliveries to our customers. “

Ignoring the drivetrain, what are the differences and considerations between developing and engineering a passenger car and a large commercial vehicle?

“In the development of any vehicle, engineers balance the various technical parameters to come up with a blend of vehicle attributes which most closely fit the demands of the consumer. In the targets and specifications for the Volta Zero, we must consider the needs of fleet customers who need a practical and dependable solution for demanding daily use. But we can also take advantage of our unique position of having a blank sheet of paper to work from, to deliver the ultimate vehicle in terms of the driver’s experience. After all, for the driver, a truck is a mobile workplace where they will spend most of their working lives. Our blank sheet of paper approach means we can make huge improvements over existing trucks in terms of comfort, ergonomics, convenience, and practicality without compromising the required robustness, durability, and dependability.

As we go through the vehicle development process, there is obviously a very strong and clear focus on ensuring suitability of the design for the truck duty cycle under all possible driving conditions. Given the need for continuous operation, in some cases around the clock, the standards and intensity we use for durability testing need to be adapted compared to a passenger car. But we also need to focus on the ease of repair and service, so that the end product is as easy as possible to maintain. And on the occasions where work needs doing, this has to be done rapidly so that the vehicle can resume service without significant downtime.

The technologies typically used in the engineering of trucks often move much more slowly than in other vehicle sectors. Where more advanced technology is used, such as active safety systems, it normally trickles down from the passenger car sector after some years of maturation. The regulatory environment is changing, however, and we are facing demands to implement advanced features in commercial vehicles on a short timescale. Again, the positioning of Volta Trucks gives us a great platform to use the latest technologies and features in an optimised way, without being held back by legacy product and platforms.”

Meet Ian Collins

The Volta Zero was designed from a blank sheet of paper, rather than needing to fit an electric drivetrain into an existing architecture. What are the engineering opportunities this approach offers?

“We have taken the opportunity to move the entire drive system rearwards in the vehicle as the use of a very compact battery system and eAxle (an integrated rear axle and motor drive system) gives us a package which fits easily underneath the load box. This enables us to move the entire cab down to a much lower level, improving not just the driver’s direct view of the road and other road users, but also making the cab far easier and safer for the driver to access. It also means that the cab will be much quieter, with far less vibration than a conventional truck, as the driver is some much further away from the power source.

This very compact drivetrain package also means that we can mount the battery and main high voltage systems between the main chassis rails, which is the best possible position for structural rigidity, vehicle stability and safety in the event of a crash. Our approach to safety is comprehensive, from giving the driver the best possible view of the road, providing the latest in driver assistance systems, designing safety into our software and control systems, and all the way through to protecting the driver and other road users in the event of an accident.”

What are the biggest challenges you face?

“Many of the regulatory requirements in place for the heavy vehicle sector have been in place for a long time and are well-suited to conventionally packaged diesel-powered vehicles. Though work is certainly ongoing to take account of electrification in the sector, we are finding that some of the unique features of our design, such as the central driving position, mean that the regulations can be quite difficult to interpret correctly. We are already working closely with approval authorities to make sure that we guide the engineering in the right way to avoid any delays in the final stages of the programme.

As a start-up in the vehicle sector, we have some advantages over established players but of course there are many areas where we have to act very fast to get the fundamentals of an engineering and manufacturing programme in place. For example, all our systems, processes and standards have to be set up quickly with no history or corporate databanks to rely on. Fortunately, many of the partners and suppliers we are working with are used to this situation, so as well as bringing in new Volta Trucks team members with wide industry experience, we are also able to call on external companies with solutions they can deploy quickly and effectively to get things up and running when we need them.”

Meet Ian Collins

The passenger car market is running ahead of the commercial vehicle market in terms of availability of electrified products. What can we learn from passenger cars to bring into commercial vehicles?

“The availability of mature EV technologies is one of those trickle down areas. The commercial vehicle sector needs robust, mature components and systems and will benefit hugely from the early adopters in the passenger car sector in terms of the level of dependability of the basic technology underpinning them. In terms of the supply base, the amount of investment we have seen into development and manufacturing of EV systems has been enormous, powered by the passenger vehicle market initially, but this is now available for truck manufacturers to access at lesser cost.”

What technical innovation will the Volta Zero bring to the commercial vehicle market?

“Of course, I would start with our unique cab package with all-round visibility and low central driver position which is purpose-built around the best possible driver visibility and ergonomics. The excellent direct vision will be combined with state-of-the-art cameras and advanced driver assistance systems to give a safety performance which is unmatched in the sector for urban and suburban delivery applications.

We will make use of materials and processes with the minimum possible environmental impact. We have already communicated the use of natural fibre composites, but all the way through the vehicle, we are working on solutions to deliver our customer’s needs with the minimum environmental impact, be it from raw materials all the way through manufacture and service, to end-of-life reuse or recycling.

Our compact eAxle and vehicle-integrated energy storage solution makes use of latest available proven technology for high efficiency and low mass, giving a space-efficient and well protected battery solution as well as leaving package space for options such as the refrigeration unit and other ancillaries. The smooth, quiet ride will also be extremely popular with drivers. I have seen this in other commercial sectors where EVs have recently been introduced, and it reduces fatigue and stress, making their daily job much easier and safer.

The electronic systems we are developing provide a platform for a fully connected vehicle with integrated, cloud-based systems to enable us to develop data-rich applications to meet our customer’s needs and improve their operational efficiency. This also offers enhanced functionality to support our innovative Truck as a Service model. For example, we can offer predictive maintenance, live diagnostics and secure access to vehicle networks so that we can act pre-emptively to deal with any issues before they arise and maximise the dependability and life of every vehicle.”