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Former DTNA CEO becomes Proterra chairman

Retired Daimler Truck North America CEO Roger Nielsen is taking over as chairman of Proterra Inc., the financially struggling electric bus and battery pack maker.

Proterra went public via special purpose acquisition company merger in 2020 to gain attention — and funding — for its battery and infrastructure business. The Burlingame, California-based company continues to post revenue but losses have mounted and its share price endures wild swings.

Under Nielsen, DTNA invested in and purchased batteries from Proterra for its Thomas Built Buses subsidiary and Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. His successor as CEO at DTNA, John O’Leary, said the company remains positive about Proterra. 

“They’re doing a great job for us as far as the technology,” O’Leary said. “Obviously their supply base is still going through some growing pains. But the technology itself is great, and the relationship that we have with them is outstanding. I think they’re helping us get better and we’re helping them get better pretty much every day.”

Daimler gets its truck batteries from China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd., known as CATL.

Nielsen advising multiple mobility startups

When he retired from DTNA in 2021, Nielsen said he would remain active in advanced mobility. He joined Proterra’s board in March 2022. 

“This is a time of great transformation and opportunity across the commercial vehicle landscape,” Nielsen said in a Proterra news release on Thursday announcing the retirement of Jack Allen, non-executive chairman.

Nielsen is also a director on the boards of several startups, including autonomous mining vehicle retrofitter SafeAI, FreightTech startup AIFleet and 3D sensor technology developer Nodar.

“I still have a passion for what’s going on in battery electric. I’ve got a passion about what’s going on in autonomous,” Nielsen told FreightWaves in a March 2021 interview. “There’s a lot of transformations [that] trucking companies have to go through in the next 10 years to get themselves ready for new technologies. I’ve got a passion for that. So I can’t walk away.”

Allen led Proterra’s SPAC

Allen joined Proterra’s board in 2017 after more than 30 years at Navistar International. The global truck and bus company is now part of Volkswagen AG’s Traton Group. He was CEO from March 2020 through December 2021 and led Proterra’s SPAC merger with Arc Light Clean Transportation Corp.

Proterra is cutting 300 jobs and combining its bus and battery making into a single operation in Greenville, South Carolina. Its annual 10-K includes a strongly worded notice of going concern suggesting Proterra could default on convertible debt obligations.

But CEO Gareth Joyce said last week that the Q1 cash burn was only $2 million. That left Proterra with $296 million. Its gross loss of $6.6 million compared to $3 million a year ago. Total Q1 revenue of $80 million was up 36% year over year.

Proterra maintains full-year revenue estimate

Proterra maintained its full-year total revenue forecast of $450 million to $500 million based on a $1 billion backlog of minimum orders. That would represent year-over-year growth of 45% to 61%.

Proterra’s lenders of $150 million in August 2020 granted some grace on March 31, when debtors said they would extend the loans until 2028 in exchange for Proterra paying higher interest — 12% a year in cash and stock. 

Most other covenants, including one requiring Proterra to have $125 million in cash on hand at the end of each quarter, were waived. The lenders also agreed to look the other way on Proterra’s auditor’s statement of a notice of going concern.

Even with the breathing room, Proterra expects to burn through about half of its cash as it ramps up the Powered I plant, which Proterra expects to manufacture multiple gigawatt hours of batteries per year once fully ramped.

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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