From start-up to one of Canada’s largest electric logistics fleets, Bolt Logistics is blazing a trail in commercial electric vehicle ownership and operation. In an Electric Autonomy Canada exclusive, CEO Mark Ang discusses the costs, strategy, upside, tradeoffs, decision modelling and rewards of being an early leader in fleet electrification
In July, Toronto-based storage company Second Closet announced it would be rebranding as Bolt Logistics to better reflect its growth in e-commerce fulfillment and as a last-mile delivery provider.
In that announcement, the venture-backed company also shared its plans to build what it claims is the largest electric vehicle (EV) logistics fleet in Canada.
By the end of this fall, Bolt is slated to receive 10 electric trucks from Quebec’s Lion Electric Co., with a further 16 on order for early 2022. The move towards EVs is part of Bolt’s goal to achieve carbon-negative operations by 2023, which includes its warehouses in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver.
While this seems like an ambitious, aggressive and costly target for a five-year-old enterprise, CEO Mark Ang says Bolt’s commitment to sustainability and its rapid growth (per the company, revenues are up 400 per cent since the first quarter of 2021 and it plans to hire close to 400 new employees by the end of this year) aren’t mutually exclusive.
In an exclusive interview, Ang spoke with Electric Autonomy Canada about how the company is building its electric fleet, how it fits with Bolt’s evolution, what it hopes to accomplish and why the move towards EVs works both in the short and long terms.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity)
Electric Autonomy Canada How did you pivot from a business-to-customer storage company to a business-to-business model that includes logistics?
Mark Ang We were working with people on the consumer storage side who were decision-makers in their field and who needed logistics support for work. They asked, and we said yes.
We started in reverse logistics — handling returns for e-commerce clients and storing them. We already had the experience of going into people’s homes, packing up all their stuff, storing it until they needed it and delivering it to them. When we pivoted towards logistics, we had all the infrastructure in place. Our warehouses were the same, our people were the same and we continued to do more of the same, but just in a bigger and more consistent fashion.
Electric Autonomy Your existing fleet isn’t electric but it’s also not very old. How did that factor into your decision to go with an electric fleet?
Mark Ang Our internal combustion engine (ICE) fleet is leased. Our first dozen or so vehicles are on long-term, eight-year leases. Recent ones, however, have been on one- or two-year leases, for which we pay a slight premium. If we were thinking just short-term, it would make no sense, but thinking long-term about our goals — how we want to influence the industry and protect the planet — we knew we had to make the decision to pay that premium and start today.
With current EV ranges, we’re still going to have some level of ICE trucks in circulation for longer trips. We are working with partners to scope out what loads look like on a per-stop basis and model how that degrades over a trip in terms of battery charge to help us determine the number of EVs we’ll need to support our growth.
Electric Autonomy So the plan is to own the EVs, not lease them like you do your current fleet?
Mark Ang Yes, they will be owned assets. The industry and technology is so new and there are so few leasing partners that can come in to supply the scale we need. We’re comfortable taking that risk, but that’s also because we also don’t see it as a major one. The nice thing with EVs is that for the most part, the biggest thing you’re probably going to replace in a 10-year market are the batteries, which is something we’d want to do anyway as batteries improve. So, unlike with ICE vehicles, we won’t have to renew our fleet as frequently.
Electric Autonomy As a young company with investors, how do you make the case to your stakeholders that this is a worthy investment?
Mark Ang I think the financial question is the single biggest reason why the industry has been slow to adopt EVs on a large scale. An electric truck is about four times more expensive than a typical diesel vehicle. But there are immediate benefits to switching. We anticipate that we’ll offset 90 per cent of our fuel costs and save 60 per cent on maintenance.
For us, we’re marrying a financial decision with a corporate identity one. It’s about balancing who we want to be and what’s the right thing to do, right now. That’s why we’re only bringing in 10 trucks this year versus 100. First, there isn’t the general supply to bring in that many, but secondly, as technology and competition improves, so will prices. We’re making a conscious investment that will enable us to learn and have the infrastructure in place to ramp up when we want to.
Electric Autonomy There are programs, at least in Canada, to help companies like yours make the switch to EVs. How have you taken advantage of these?
Mark Ang The Quebec and British Columbia governments have been amazing in terms of the incentives, grants and rebates they’ve been providing the market from a commercial standpoint. We wish more people were taking advantage of these programs to accelerate the commercial adoption of electric vehicles. In some cases you can get up to $100,000 to offset the cost of a vehicle making it only three times more expensive instead of four, which allows businesses to rationalize the extra cost. There is less support in Ontario at the moment and we’re hoping that changes.
Electric Autonomy Does that mean you’ll only deploy the EVs in those markets where you do have government support?
Mark Ang We’ll be deploying them in all our markets and the big reason is that we want to get operational data across all three. We want to see how the trucks perform in the cold Montreal winters versus the mild ones in British Columbia. What happens if there’s a massive snowstorm in Montreal? How does that impact range or battery retention? This is the kind of space where you can dip your toe in the water then plunge headfirst once you see it working.
Electric Autonomy It’s one thing to convert your fleet to electric and it’s another to have the charging infrastructure in place to adequately support your fleet. What have you developed in terms of charging strategy?
Mark Ang Primarily, we’ll be leveraging these vehicles for last-mile delivery, so we’re dealing mostly with the greater metro areas of our current cities. We’ll probably work within a 200-kilometre radius of the truck’s origin point and charge overnight in one of our warehouses. Most of the sites we’re looking at in terms of expansions are relatively new builds so they’re high energy-efficiency and have got really good amperage to adequately support charging infrastructure without requiring upgrades.
From Toronto, for instance, we might service Waterloo or St. Catharines, and on those runs we’ll need more range within the batteries.
We could add batteries to a truck but then that makes the truck heavier, which impacts how much you can load onto it. That might require you to get a bigger truck to meet demand, which might mean changing the actual class of driver’s license. Or we could elongate the box, but driving a 26-foot truck through downtown Toronto is just not as practical as a 20-foot truck. Again, it’s a balance. We’ve done a lot of work on trying to solve this optimization challenge and think we’ve come up with a couple of options that work well. This is also an investment, time- and resource-wise, but we expect to get a lot of intel out of this initial run of trucks.
Electric Autonomy Your first delivery of EVs is coming from Lion Electric. Do you see Bolt sticking with this manufacturer for future deliveries?
Mark Ang We’ve been working with Lion for over 18 months to discuss the process and specifications, as well as the constraints around the vehicles themselves. So we have a really good relationship there and if those vehicles continue to perform, there’s no reason not to continue that relationship. With Lion, we had access to some of their senior leaders and really felt we were able to help shape the end product. The fact that they are a Canadian-based business was also a decision we could support.
That being said, there’s also a lot of progress happening industry-wide. Ultimately, our number one goal is to service our customers and we want to do that in an environmentally conscious way.
Electric Autonomy Ignoring the environmental and financial reasons for going electric, how does this move support your business in other ways?
Mark Ang This may not be the case for other companies, but for us, it centres around people. We are a relatively young and progressive workforce compared to your typical logistics business. With that type of environment come a lot of strong opinions, one of which is that we can think globally and act locally to try and influence our slice of the pie.
For us to continue to do good work, we need good people and those people are more resolute about the impact that they want to see their employer to have on the world. Because we’ve made our values so public, the people that come into our business today share those values and are ready to support us in our journey towards negative carbon logistics.
I think a primary concern from clients is whether operationally we will be able to achieve the same things as with an ICE fleet. The answer is yes, we’ll control for that.
Electric Autonomy Wouldn’t a larger player be in a better position to influence commercial adoption trends?
Mark Ang As a small company, we’re willing to take risks and we have the back-end systems as well as culture to support faster change. As we grow, we want to maintain our entrepreneurial spirit that enables us to be nimble.
This means we’re able to quickly pilot new ideas or products to see if they work well. A larger player isn’t necessarily set up to do this, so we’re actually a prime target for OEMs. When we get approached about potential partnerships, our first thought is: how do we make this work? It’s just an attitude shift but a really important one that allows us to punch above our weight class in this space. You almost need someone to incubate this concept, and we’re very happy to be the guinea pig because it’s the right thing to do.