Volvo takes holistic approach to heavy-duty truck electrification (with video)

Volvo electric truck

It would have been easy for Volvo Trucks North America to convert a few diesel-powered trucks to run on electricity, turn them over to fleets for testing, examine the performance data and take a bow for helping clear the air in pollution-choked California.

Instead the Swedish truck maker is creating a battery-electric freight ecosystem that brings together 15 partners to cover all aspects of shifting to electricity from diesel fuel. That includes infrastructure, maintenance, dealership readiness and recruiting eventual technicians from community college vocational programs.

“We wanted to see what it would take to create an end-to-end vehicle system,” AB Volvo (OTC: VLVLY) CEO and President Martin Lundstedt told FreightWaves on Tuesday after a daylong deep dive into the Volvo LIGHTS partnership.

“When you go through the full value chain in an electric mobility system, that is why you have all these actors,” Lundstedt said.

LIGHTS, which stands for Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions, is testing five battery-powered Class 7-8 trucks with Dependable Supply Chain Services and NFI Industries. 

A mix of 18 straight trucks and fifth-wheel tractors capable of hauling 66,000 pounds for 75 to 175 miles before recharging are coming from Volvo’s assembly plant in Dublin, Virginia, where limited electric truck commercial production begins at the end of 2020.

Volvo is spending nearly $40 million on the LIGHTS program, which received $44.8 million from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which is committed to making the state carbon neutral by 2045. 

Plague of pollution

“Ninety percent of Californians still breathe unhealthy air during some part of the year,” said CARB member Barbara Riordan. “Growing use of zero-emission technology and reduced dependence on diesel-power tractors cuts energy consumption and greenhouse gases.”

The South Coast Air Quality Management District contributed $4 million to Volvo LIGHTS and oversees the grant focused on pollution-plagued communities along truck drayage routes between the state’s Inland Empire and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

“We’ve made tremendous progress but until we get to the mobile sources and reduce the emissions from the big trucks, we’re not going to be able to truly be breathing healthy air,” said air district governing board member Janice Rutherford.

Mobile sources account for more than 80% of the remaining smog-forming emissions in the region, she said.

VNR attributes

The converted VNR trucks have no tailpipes and therefore emit no emissions or smog-forming particulates.

“During its operational life, it will reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) by 40-60%,” said Brett Pope, Volvo Trucks North America director of electric vehicles. “Inside the cab, it’s up to six decibels quieter than the diesel product. So this is a much better work environment for drivers.”

Volvo engineers added two extra battery packs to the rear of the tractor to boost range by 33%, ensuring a round trip to the port could be completed anxiety free on a single charge. 

“The eagerness by our drivers who want to check out the trucks is incredible,” said Troy Musgrave, DHE director of process improvement. “These trucks do all the things that diesel did, just better.”

Route choosing

Volvo will target certain freight-hauling segments because public charging infrastructure is lacking. That means high-power charging stations must be installed in locations like TEC Equipment, the world’s largest Volvo service center in Fontana, California. Covering two and a half acres, it has 102 service bays.

TEC will maintain 15 of the LIGHTS trucks. Two 50 kW chargers are live to recharge the trucks.

“We’ll focus on return-to-base or hub-to-hub type operations,” Pope said. “We’re going to run trucks in the local distribution and regional distribution sectors.” Real-world driving range, engine management and daily charging logistics all need greater understanding.  

As public charging comes on line, the electric VNRs will eventually expand to long haul. LIGHTS partner Trillium is planning two 150-kW direct-current (DC) fast chargers in Anaheim, California. Trillium is a subsidiary of the Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores.

“You have different players with different roles and responsibilities,” said Keith Brandis, Volvo Group vice president of partnerships and strategic solutions.

“We relied a great deal on the technological know-how of our sister company, Volvo Buses, which has already built over 5,000 hybrid and electric vehicles, and on Volvo Trucks’ production of all-electric, medium-duty vehicles in Europe,” he said.

Technician training

The LIGHTS program is working with San Bernardino and Rio Hondo community colleges to train technicians able to work on electric trucks, avoiding an ongoing challenge in recruiting diesel technicians.

“With this new technology it would make sense to back it up to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and start back in junior high,” said Jeff Zody, a Volvo aftermarket manager. “You’re going to have people already in the shop who are very skilled, so you want a whole range.”

FreightWaves’ test drive

During a brief test drive at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Tuesday, the interior silence allowed a distraction-free conversation with my safety driver. After releasing the air brake with its typical loud hiss, the Class 7 VNR straight truck emitted only a slight whine as the single gear electric motor propelled us forward.

Governed to a maximum speed of 58 mph, the electric VNR offered no Tesla “Ludicrous Mode” to slam me back into my seat. Although dampened, the instant torque of the electric drive made straight-line acceleration the real deal. 

With four drive modes that applied varied amounts of engine braking through energy-recapturing regenerative braking, the single spin around the track ended with the same amount of stored energy as when I started. 

The coolest part of the drive was shifting to reverse without a reverse gear. The traction motors simply switched direction. The truck backed slowly with no sway or lateral movement.