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Last year, we were excited to write in detail about the Bollinger B1, the first of its kind off-road electric sport utility truck designed by Bollinger Motors. Since the all-wheel drive truck is electric, there was no need to accommodate for an engine or transmission. In lieu of these considerations, Robert Bollinger and his team dropped the motors and batteries into the plane of chassis, which in turn created enough space to feature tailgates at both ends. This open design allows lengthy material to be run through the truck's interior from tailgate to tailgate. Talk about extra storage opportunities...
The Bollinger Motors team is currently hard at work producing and testing the B1 in anticipation for its 2019 launch, but that didn't stop Robert Bollinger from taking the time to talk with us about his diverse background, the design process behind the B1 and where he sees it fitting into an autonomous future:
You started as an industrial design student at Carnegie Mellon and now you have your own transportation company, Bollinger Motors. Can you tell me about the journey you had along the way? I've heard it includes everything from packaging design to farming...
Yeah, so the reason I went to school for industrial design was to become a car designer. I had been drawing cars since I was a little kid and was crazy about them. At first I was planning on becoming an engineer, so I was taking all the math and science courses in high school. Then right before college decision making, I decided I wanted to be a car designer instead, so I went to Carnegie Mellon for industrial design. I miraculously got in without a portfolio.
It was a great experience because it wasn't really a styling program—it was a how things are made and how to make things kind of industrial design program, which I loved. After graduating, I was planning on going to grad school for the car styling part so I could master both ends and be well rounded. But then I realized I needed to make money first, so I decided to get a job to eventually pay for grad school. I moved to New York City where I'd gotten a job at a design studio, and once I moved to New York, I truthfully never saved the money to go back to school. New York City is like a trap—you just keep spending. You can never make enough money there, especially when you're first starting out.
I ended up getting a job in advertising and becoming an Art Director and a Creative Director. I was in New York City when I met my friend John Masters. I designed a logo for his company, John Masters Organics back in '95, I think. I kept doing more and more work for him on the side, and I eventually quit advertising and became business partners with him. Then he left, and I took over the company, if you will. That's when I realized that I really love running the whole thing—with my staff of course—because it's all about seeing the big picture.
We sold that company in 2013, and I had the opportunity to do really anything at that point—I was very lucky. I thought about how I never actually achieved my dream of having my own car company, so I said, "Let's try that and just start it without worrying about the big end picture," you know, a billions of dollars needed down the road kind of thing. "Let's just get a couple of engineers and just see what we can come with." So it really started as a small "Why not?" project.
Along the way I moved upstate to the Catskills where my partners and I bought a farm and started raising grass-fed beef. That lasted for about four years. We sold the herd last year because the truck was taking up so much time, and now we can just concentrate on the B1.
The B1 actually stemmed from needs you felt weren't being addressed by trucks used for farming. Can you explain some of those needs and why they're important?
My regular pick-up just wasn't really doing the job. It was bad for snow plowing, it was bad for ground clearance... I kept wondering, "why doesn't someone just make an all-wheel drive pick up truck—not four wheel drive but all-wheel drive—that has great maneuverability, great ground clearance, and the ability to have nice weight balance where not all of the weight is in the front?"
Those thoughts were earlier on in the farm years, and then later when I started doing the truck/automotive thing, I realized that was exactly what we needed to build. I just kind of based it on what I wanted because it's my company, so why not say, "what do I want?" I knew at this age and after everything I went through that I didn't need a little sports car. What I really needed was a truck that could do a million things, like a multi-tool.
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Any company starting up now should really be thinking about the future, and the future is electric. So from the very beginning, we were wanting to do something electric. With the electricity and the way the powertrain is in the B1 with the smaller motor, you can have a completely different architecture to your truck. It allows for that pass through, for that front space, and it allows for the amount of torque you have. Everything about electric works really great with trucks, kind of almost better than with passenger cars. I believed that if all of these elements could come together in a nice package, it would almost be like a tool.
Was it difficult for you to move pass the fact that you didn't need to accommodate for engines and transmissions when designing an electric vehicle?
Yeah, it kind of was. What we were considering at first was potentially going out and buying something like a Jeep Wrangler and electrifying it to learn the electrical part really well. But then I realized we couldn't do that because then we would be adopting all the bad stuff that's already there. We would have to put everything in the front compartment, and then suddenly we'd have bad weight balance.
"We sort of threw everything out and built [the B1] as though we had just landed on the planet and didn't know what trucks were."
So we had to start from the ground up and lay it out exactly the way we wanted it. We sort of threw everything out and built it as though we had just landed on the planet and didn't know what trucks were, but we needed this thing to do all this particular stuff. It was great to start completely fresh and not worry about what was already out there. My Chief Engineer, Karl Hacken, started right away with the layout of the chassis that can hold all the tension and then worked on the compartments to hold the different motors. We jumped on it right away.
With the B1 you found this sweet spot between familiar exterior design and new interior details that people haven't seen before. Was this end result very deliberate, or did it come about naturally?
It's kind of a melding of a few different things. One was figuring out how to make this prototype ourselves. We didn't want to send out and have big pieces of metal stamped—that's very expensive and takes a really, really long time. So we decided to start with flat pieces of aluminum and bend them ourselves. That way we could come up with the shapes we wanted to without needing to rely on those long wait times.
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That very utilitarian, square, flat look is what I've always liked in vehicles. Since we were doing a truck, we could get away with that look more. If you did this with a little sedan, it might become a lot more difficult. It sounds easy, but it was a lot of sketching and a lot of work in CAD. I actually learned Solidworks for this because I'm not very good at sketching. My other designer that was working with me, Ross Compton, is amazing at sketching, but I couldn't get there in my mind, so I learned Solidworks. That way I could sit there and do the bends myself. I ended up doing the final design in CAD because it just needed to be done that way rather than sketching.
How many people are on your team now?
There are four engineers full time right now—Karl, CJ, John, and Dan. They each have their major areas of concentration, and then Karl brings it all together as the Chief Engineer. I had a separate Electrical Engineer, Luc, who did a lot of the battery sourcing, but he was more like an outside contractor.
We just hired a third-party engineering firm to help us go through all the simulation that vehicles have to go through. That way we don't have to buy all those computers and hire all those people. We're able to move forward quickly with their expertise.
Then we also used a lot of vendors. We ended up sending out that sheet metal to be bent and laser cut for us just because we just didn't have enough time. We found vendors in Albany, New York and Rochester, New York and a lot of pretty local vendors to make a lot of parts for us. We also machined stuff in our shop ourselves. It's all about finding the right people.
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That's especially cool because upstate New York isn't the first place you'd think of when you think about automotive start-ups.
Yeah, of course. The shop I found is actually four miles from my farm, and I figured we could start here and see where it goes. I think that's been the best thing about this process—we never put too much pressure on any decisions. We just do it as opposed to saying, "We have to get to this crazy point at this time and this crazy point at that time". It's just growing as it grows. We keep ourselves busy and we keep moving, so it's not like we just hang out and wait for things to happen. It's about getting there but getting there the right way. I'm confident of that now, but before I was pulling my hair out because I didn't know that much. Now I have just the right guys around me and the right engineering partners.
Do you think having a small team has helped you move along at a faster pace? I'm assuming you don't have to go through a million different approvals before decisions are made.
Yeah, the final approval is just mine. When I give my team a challenge, they generally come up with ideas pretty quickly. I like to think of us—and hopefully we'll keep growing this way—as a lean, efficient, smart company. It's never about doing something just for splash or because it'll make us more money or anything like that. It's just about what's true to the vehicle and how we'll use it and nothing more.
As a small, independent company making just one vehicle at a time, how do you ensure your final design will still be relevant when it releases?
"If you try to design anything specifically for the future, it's going to look old quickly."
When I was first looking into designing the B1 and doing little sketches on my own, I kind of realized that electric always equals future. If you try to design anything specifically for the future, it's going to look old quickly. So if you instead focus on classical lines based on design lines—not necessarily vehicular design, but maybe even a design aesthetic that exists outside of vehicles—then what you design can always live. Regardless of when we come out with the B1, and we're shooting for 2019, we can always love the look of it because it won't age. That's what my hope is.
At a lot of auto shows and even at CES, autonomous vehicles and brain connected interfaces seem to be the norm right now. Are those areas you're interested in investigating?
No, that's not on our radar at all. That's not of any interest to me. The way I see the B1 is that it's a hands on tool, and that includes the driving part of it. A huge audience that has become very excited about it is the off-road community because of all its capabilities. They'll always want to drive it on rocks, off-road, on-road, whatever. So the B1 has a whole target audience, a whole aesthetic. Internally what we want to do with it is always keep it as a hands on tool. It's minimal and you're in charge.
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What has it been like to merge two very different markets—the off-road market and the environmentally friendly market?
Our single most received email is from people that use or have used diesel, whether it be former Land Rover owners, off-road enthusiasts or even people who have farms. They always say something like, "I had to give up diesel, I couldn't do it anymore. I didn't feel right about diesel." So now I have this vehicle that can do all of the same things, and it's electric. It's like a Venn diagram—you have the off-road people and environmentalists, and that center place where they all overlap is our people. Both men and women. It's like that sweet spot of it all.
That's interesting because you never picture those markets overlapping.
Right, exactly. At trade shows I'll have the trunk open and people see that there's nothing in there. They realize it's electric and say, "Forget it. It's electric." But then we start talking to them and explaining that because it's electric you have extra storage options and this ground clearance that the truck comes with. After that they usually leave saying, "Okay I'll keep an eye on you." You can really convert people with just knowledge.
What's next for you guys, after the B1 releases?
It's a whole year now of engineering, production, waiting for simulated testing, etc. Then next year we'll go into production. After that we'll probably start making our second prototype of a different kind of vehicle on top of the same chassis as the B1, which we'll reveal at the end of this year or sometime next year. It's a progression of our line of vehicles, but we're not looking to make hundreds of thousands of vehicles or seven or eight different kinds of cars. We want to stay true to what we are.
Where do you see the future of transportation design heading, and where do you see Bollinger Motors falling into the mix?
I'm thinking back to your question about autonomous vehicles. There's been a lot of discussion about how if autonomy becomes a big thing, a lot of young people living in cities won't want to own their own vehicles and will turn to ride sharing. I see a huge market for that. If a lot of people are having their day-to-day needs taken care of that way, I see a whole future of much smaller volume, crazier different kind of vehicles being made for different purposes. It's not a luxury—I see it being viewed much differently than that.
"I think there's a whole world outside of autonomy that's going to be great, and hopefully we'll be part of it."
Now you buy a Corolla or something that's inexpensive. It gets you there and has great fuel mileage, but you hate your commute. Well, if a whole other vehicle is handling your commute for you, and you don't have to drive in traffic, then maybe you'll want to go off-roading or for fun. Driving and having your hands on the wheel will actually be a wonderful, different kind of thing at that point. I think there's a whole world outside of autonomy that's going to be great, and hopefully we'll be part of it.