At an age when many men are thinking about retirement, Patrick Collignon could have chosen to ride out the rest of the trip like a long-distance trucker nearing the terminal.
Instead, he stepped down from an industry behemoth and turned the ignition switch of a start-up.
His destination is the future.
The name of his start-up, Trova Commercial Vehicles (Trova CV), comes from the Biblical admonition, “seek and you will find.”
In Latin, “trova'” means “find,” said Collignon, 60. “So, we left the seeking behind and we went immediately for ‘we will find.'”
What Collignon hopes to find is a solution, at least in part, to a giant challenge facing the trucking industry and society in general. And he wants to do it by taking heavy diesel trucks off the roads and converting them to electric.
“We fully recognize that the world of new vehicle sales will continue,” he said in an interview at Trova’s design studio at the Pulaski County Innovation Center in Fairlawn. “We’re not going to replace that, not even remotely. But in order to get where the world needs to be, there needs to be other solutions as part of the total equation.
“If you look at the reality today, zero emission vehicles are way too expensive. And the lead time is way out there. Just try to order one. Good luck.
“Cost needs to go down, lead time needs to go down. And on top of that, if you look at California, if they ever want to reach their targets — they have very lofty targets –mathematically, you cannot reach it because the OEMs do not produce enough new zero emission vehicles. So for California to reach its targets by 2030, almost every OEM today has to make 100% zero emission vehicles. It’s not happening. Not even close.
“We strongly believe that re-powering solutions like ours will be key.”
Patrick Collignon was born in Belgium. He has 35 years of experience in the automotive and commercial vehicle industry, at General Motors and Volvo. As COO of Volvo Group Trucks Americas, he was responsible for production of Volvo’s truck brands including Mack.
“The plant in Dublin produces all the Volvo trucks for North America,” he said. “And then in 2019, we started a new truck factory in Roanoke. The factory in Roanoke produces medium duty Mack trucks. I shouldn’t comment too much about it, because it’s still proprietary to the Volvo Group. But that was a unique experience. With that experience [I was] looking to see what’s next.”
As far back as 2017, he said, “we understood that the world is about to change. I think right now, there is absolute consensus, that by 2030, the automotive industry, as we know it today, will be redefined.
“Henry Ford, he was the one that created the first paradigm shift. Then we had the Toyota Production System, and so-called ‘lean manufacturing’ that some 30 years ago drove the second paradigm shift, which has impacted, I think, today, every manufacturing business in the world. And that was very much a paradigm shift within the walls of the factories.
“The third paradigm shift, the one that we are now amidst, is more enterprise-related … meaning more outside of the walls than inside the walls.”
This paradigm shift is driven by four factors: electromobility, autonomous driving, connectivity of things and asset recovery. “The focus on reusing things, more professionally named Asset Recovery, is going to be one of those locomotives that is pulling this paradigm shift,” Collignon said.
Collignon left Volvo in 2019 and founded Trova in 2020.
In a building not far from Trova’s design studio, two Class 8 trucks (gross vehicle weight rating over 33,000 pounds) sit side by side. Seemingly new, with gleaming green paint, they are in fact a repurposed 2016 Volvo and 2009 Mack. The Mack is waiting for its electric drivetrain. The Volvo has already mostly completed its transformation, as witnessed by a trace of road dirt on the body and tires.
With a little imagination one can almost smell the exhaust and hear the roar of the diesel. Except there’s nothing to smell and very little to hear. These trucks are powered by rechargeable Panasonic 18650 lithium-ion batteries.
A total of 1,584 batteries go into one module; 11 modules go into one pack, and three packs (more could be added) power the trucks. Under the hood, orange wires mean “caution!” They carry 100 volts or more. Collignon declined to disclose who built the electric motor but said it is one tenth the size of a diesel motor, delivers more torque and power for its weight than diesel, and delivers power directly to the rear axle. The motor reverses to go backward, and regenerates power during braking.
How far the truck can go on a charge depends on how many battery packs it carries, said Chad Burchett, Trova’s chief technology officer. Rather than miles per gallon, electric trucks are measured in terms of kilowatt hours per mile. This figure “depends on how much freight you’re hauling, the route you’re going to, temperatures you’re operating in. It gets very complex. The industry typically will apply a round number, say, like two kilowatt hours per mile to haul 80,000 pounds on a standard route. So with that, our largest battery pack allowable configuration that meets the maximum weight limits allowable to be on the actual federal highways, you’re looking at a 300 mile plus range vehicle.”
The Volvo still has the diagonal Volvo logo on the front. Trova calls it a Volvo Trova D2E (diesel to electric). “We take all the components that age well, the cab, the hood, the body, the front axle, the rear axle, all those components that will survive you and me, and we transplant them onto our chassis. So what we have done is we redesigned from scratch a new chassis, a chassis that we believe … is more tailored to the specific components that are critical to an electric drive line.
“And then all the components that age poorly, your gearbox, your after-treatment [which reduces harmful exhaust], your engine, all of those things that have wear and tear, that age poorly, they disappear. And we put in a brand new electric drive line with all the components that go with that.”
The asset recovery part of the equation means that old diesels can be converted to new electrics at a much lower environmental cost than manufacturing a new diesel. “If you talk about reducing greenhouse gasses, it’s not only at the tailpipe of the vehicle, but now we start reducing that at the tailpipe of the factory,” Collignon said.
As part of “validating” the new technology, Trova drivers have taken the Volvo on the road. “We operate them under our DOT number and our license registration as a manufacturer here in Virginia,” Burchett said. “You know, we want to drive the truck.”
“If you come and drive around here at night, who knows, you might come across one,” Collignon said.
“You won’t hear it, but you’ll see it,” Burchett said.
The Volvo and the Mack will be turned over to their owners once Collignon is satisfied. He said that could be the end of next year.
Once the kinks are worked out of the conversion process, Collignon hopes to offer a one-week turnaround. “So that means you bring in your diesel truck on Monday, and the next Monday you drive away with brand new electric driveline. So that’s a different story than having to wait 18 months for a vehicle to come. So lead time is drastically shorter. The cost is drastically less.”
Collignon declined to disclose the price of his converted electrics. A new Class 8 electric truck sells for $300,000 or more, according to a March 29, 2022 article on trucks.com. For comparison, a new diesel costs around $150,000, according to Collin Peel, the founder/CEO of Wytheville-based Camrett Logistics.
Trova is also prototyping a new (as opposed to converted) vehicle.
“There is one specific segment that is right now extremely high in demand for new electric vehicles,” Collignon said. These are spotter trucks, also called terminal trucks or yard jockeys, used in logistic centers and harbor areas to move trailers. “It’s a very short vehicle, very maneuverable, and has some unique features that allows for trailers to be lifted very quickly, and to be moved very quickly. Because of the specific nature of that business, they typically don’t leave the logistic centers. So the limitations that you would have with long haul, you don’t have with this, and this is the segment that the industry has absolutely consensus on that it will electrify.
“Part of the challenge with the diesel versions [of spotter trucks] is the after-treatment. They don’t do a lot of mileage, but they idle a lot. And so the after-treatment systems that take the exhaust gas, when the exhaust gas leaves the engine, it has to go through a process of, you can say filtration, for the lack of a better word. And that system is designed for vehicles that run 65 miles an hour. It’s not meant to idle. So the maintenance on these things is very high for these type of vehicles when it’s diesel. So there is an absolutely business case for everybody that has spotter trucks today to go to electric, not because of it’s noble, but because they can lower their total cost of operation. Total cost of ownership can be heavily reduced. So we decided then to use the same technology that we’re putting in our D2E, but put it into a brand new vehicle.”
With the existing market for spotter trucks and a potential market for the D2E, Collingnon and Burchett believe Trova could be scaled up at some point. “Hopefully we can bring in another industrial footprint to southwest Virginia,” Collignon said.
Collignon founded Trova in 2020 as a C corporation. He declined to disclose the ownership, but the board of directors includes Collin Peel, along with Denny Slagle, former president of Mack Trucks. Collignon said some of Trova’s investors “had seen the success with the [Mack] factory in Roanoke and say, hey, you know, can we do this again? And if we do this again, what kind of opportunity is there? And of course we all said, you know, looking at each other, the biggest opportunity is yet to come.”
While technological revolutions are often led by young people — think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg — Collignon isn’t letting some gray hairs stop him from trying.
“So, the key thing, it requires only a junior management course [to see] that paradigm shifts are never led by what we call the old companies. I mean, think about the role that Tesla played in making the world see that it is possible to drive electric cars, [that] it is possible to find customers that want to drive electric cars and develop technology around it. I mean, it was not General Motors who was already talking about zero emission cars when I left GM … it’s Tesla that did it.
“So, either you kind of ride out your career, and go lay on the white sandy beach and drink pina coladas, or … use our experience to partake in actual helping formulate how this paradigm shift can look, will look … especially specifically to this region, because we fell in love with this region.” (“We” refers to his wife and sons.)
Collin Peel, asked why he thinks Collignon is taking on this challenge, said: “Passion for a cleaner future.”
The famous passage which inspired Trova’s name is found in the books of Matthew and Luke. It is Jesus who says “seek and you will find.”
To the literary-minded, the name also recalls Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” in which the aging explorer abandons the familiar comforts of home, calling, “Some work of noble note, may yet be done … Come, my friends, ‘t is not too late to seek a newer world,” and rallies his sailors to push into the unknown, “strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”