INTERVIEW: Meet Carsten Astheimer, Designer of the Volta Zero, to understand the journey from concept to complete vehicle

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What’s the usual design process with a project like this, and how long does it usually take? Did the Volta Zero follow the usual process?

“We follow the same process in every project we undertake. Firstly, there is the phase of understanding, collecting all relevant information that will affect the project to create the project brief. Understanding the use case, the needs of the driver and the fleet managers, the positioning of the brand and its values, the key competitors, and also a research into new and sustainable technologies, from the drive train through to materials and manufacturing processes. Then the exploration, here we push the confines of the brief exploring a wide range of directions, selecting the theme that we believe is the most innovative, relevant, and desirable. Finally, the execution. Once the theme is chosen, we go the extra mile to refine and define the product using the latest software and hardware, resolving the ergonomics, aesthetics, and manufacturability of the product.

For the Volta Zero, we spent a significant amount of time together with the founders to really understand the use case and the user: in Rotterdam I spent a whole day making deliveries in an 18-tonne truck with Breytner, a logistics company that gave us an eye-opening insight into this industry; we met with potential manufacturing and technology suppliers, and talked with logistics companies like DPD, Marks & Spencer, Ikea and the Royal Mail. After this research we defined the product spec, and we worked with the founders to determine the Brand positioning and design language and decided on the key USP’s for this first truck: Safety, Efficiency and Driver Environment. With the brief set, we developed the vehicle architecture to ensure best in class safety through direct visibility and efficiency with a low central driving position easing ingress and egress with and symmetrical doors left and right. In the interior nothing is arbitrary; the uncluttered instrument panel allows excellent ergonomic access to all the controls. The screens only displaying the information needed at any one time, reducing cognitive overload for the driver. We developed several aesthetic concepts, refining the selected direction into a full 3D package which was validated both in VR and a full-scale mock-up. Once validated, we developed the detail design of the truck, with a build strategy that would ensure the clean and pure design intent that requires a lot of thought and work to achieve. The parts were made, and the running prototype was put together in our workshop. This whole process took 16 months.”

Where did you draw your inspiration for the design?

“The overall design philosophy for Volta Zero is – where technology meets nature – which is in harmony with the brand, giving the vehicle a friendly and approachable character, as this vehicle should be part of the urban community. The simplicity of the overall volume, combined with clean, sculptural surfaces and precise details emphasise its futuristic essence. The natural palette of colours, materials and finishes are calming and create a light and spacious interior space. We also wanted to create the most sustainable vehicle possible, so we made the body panels from natural flax fibre infused with a biodegradable resin. The result is a fully natural, extremely lightweight, high-performance fibre composite that is almost CO2 neutral over its lifecycle.”

Was the design more focussed on form or function, or both, and why?

“In order to achieve our three key objective for the design – to be best in class for: Safety, Efficiency and Driver Environment, form and function need to work in harmony. The vehicle has been designed with a driver centric approach, both in terms of its form and function. The central driving position is at a lowered height, optimising the eye height at 1.8m from the ground to have a good view over traffic but to have a connected eyeline with pedestrians and cyclists. We have maximised the glass to improve direct visibility with 220 degrees of direct vision around the driver. This lower seating position and quick opening sliding doors on the left and right side of the cabin allows easy access in-and-out of either side of the cab. The interior of the cabin has a natural palette of colours, materials and finishes creating a calming and light and spacious interior environment.”

Was the design more focussed on form or function, or both, and why?

“It is a rare occurrence to get the opportunity to rethink and develop an all-new vehicle type from the ground up, but that was the opportunity we had, as there were no preconceptions for how the vehicle should be. This was a huge challenge. What I am most proud about is how the whole team of designers and design engineers pulled together, resolving the new vehicle architecture, translating the brand values into such a beautiful product, and the quality of execution of the running prototype. All of this in such a short time scale has been a truly remarkable project.”