Volvo Plans Big Electric Trucks for Local, Regional Hauls

Volvo Trucks will ship electric trucks in California shortly, in a plan to showcase what big trucks can do when they’re running solely on big batteries. Over the next year, the California-focused program for the VNR Electric full-size regional truck will expand to more EV truck types, up to and including the largest tractors for 80,000 tractor-trailer rigs. Volvo’s rollout includes recharging systems as well as insurance and analytic services.

Alternative-energy trucks are starting to gain popularity. In addition to Volvo, makers of large electric trucks include Freightliner/Daimler, Mack, Paccar (Kenworth, Peterbilt, DAF), Navistar. There are also startups such as Tesla and Nikola. Some of the first electric trucks are designed-for-diesel bodies with motors in place of engines and battery packs attached to the frame rails behind/under the cabs. Driving range? Volvo says that’s still being formulated.

Volvo VNR electric truck cutaway. The battery packs live where fuel tanks would on the diesel version. Volvo says they slide in and out for maintenance.

Volvo describes the first VNR Electric trucks as demonstration units based on proven propulsion and energy storage technology now used in the Volvo FE Electric trucks, and builds on sister company Volvo Buses that has sold more than 4,000 electrified buses since 2010, the company says. According to Volvo’s Jonathan Agebrand, “The Volvo VNR is ideal for applications like heavy urban distribution, drayage and other regional applications where electric trucks will first have the greatest impact … the addition of an all-electric powertrain [to the VNR model] provides even greater opportunities to expand its footprint in the regional-haul market.”

This EV-truck stuff has a lot of buzzwords and acronyms. Skip the next paragraph from Volvo if you start to feel faint between the acronyms and the buzzword-bingo phrases innovative, holistic approach, unique opportunity, end-to-end electrification coordination, and sustainable freight solution. From a Volvo release:

[Volvo Trucks North America’s (VTNA)] introduction of the Volvo VNR [the truck model] electric models are part of an innovative partnership, known as LIGHTS (Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions) between the Volvo Group, California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), and industry leaders in transportation and electrical charging infrastructure.

“The LIGHTS project is a truly unique opportunity to showcase a holistic approach to electrification of the freight transport industry as we handle ongoing challenges including electricity generation and battery optimization,” said [VTNA president Peter] Voorhoeve. “We appreciate that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the SCAQMD have recognized our leadership and trusted us to oversee this project that will ultimately result in the commercialization of fully-electric heavy-duty trucks. In addition to introducing the VNR Electric, through LIGHTS we will bring a complete sustainable freight solution with end-to-end electrification coordination with our many partners.”

Translation: Using a version of the Volvo VNR truck converted to run on battery power, the automaker is taking part in a California pilot project to reduce pollution from big trucks used regionally for local deliveries, drayage (short-haul freight, such as cargo from the Port of Long Beach to a warehouse), and regional but not cross-country shipping. California’s main air pollution board (CARB) will provide $ 45 million to the LA-region pollution board (SCAQMD) to run the project. The state already requires ships docked at the big ports to run on shore power (electricity) rather than diesel or ghastly dirty bunker fuel (think: liquid tar). There’s a parallel move to shift the port equipment (big forklift trucks, or tugs) to electric.

The Volvo FE Electric, already in service in Europe (here as a garbage truck), provides the drivetrain for the Volvo VNR Electric.

For its part, Volvo won’t just sell trucks. It will lease them as well and will provide (and finance) charging equipment, information on optimizing routes to maximize battery life, and study uptime. One such single-check plan would cover the lease payments, maintenance, insurance, charging equipment and uptime services.

Trucking companies are onboard with low-pollution locomotion as long as it’s reliable. They recall teething problems earlier in the century with trucks converted to run on liquified natural gas, problems such as range, active management of the fuel that is liquid but really wants to be a gas, understanding the differences between cold and warm LNG, weight issues (LNG tanks that match diesel’s range are bigger and heavier), and reliability. There is some interest in plug-in hybrid trucks, too, that could travel several miles on battery power, or run cooling and refrigeration systems while the truck is parked.

The Volvo-California program will start with a straight truck (all axles on a single frame; no trailer) and a tractor (to pull a separate trailer) with loaded weights up to 66,00o pounds; drivetrains include 4×2 (two axles, rear axle driven), 6×2 liftable (three axles, forward rear axle lifts when lightly loaded), and 6×4 (three axles, with two rear axles driven). Of the first two dozen trial-run trucks, the majority will be 66,000-pound day cabs (no overnight runs) and a handful more will have 80,000-pound (so-called Class 8) capacities.

Come 2020, Volvo intends to move beyond the SoCal pilot program and sell or lease trucks to a wider range of customers. It will also move from medium-large to large trucks. The biggest trucks will have a sleeper cab for local/regional hauls but they’re not — yet — intended to go cross-country. After California, Volvo says it would expand, still a limited regional rollout, covering the Pacific coast, adding Oregon and Washington, plus Texas and some northeastern states.

Big trucks will need a separate charging infrastructure, and for a big charging station, they’ll need a power grid designed for a small city. According to Volvo, Southern California Edison would need 6-14 months to build out the infrastructure for about 50 charging stations.

Anton Wahlman, an analyst with The Street who tracked the Tesla Semi when it was announced two years ago with a claimed range of 500 miles, offered this perspective of what it takes to recharge a fleet of trucks going long distances:

If you are going to charge such a truck [Tesla Semi] to 80 percent in 30 minutes, God help the electricity grid. It will be like plugging in a minor city to the grid at that particular interstate rest-stop. Can you spell brownouts? — no, make that blackouts.

At media briefings earlier in the month, Volvo was asked about range — the obvious question — and the answer was qualified: There needs to be more real-world testing. Also, Volvo says, an electric truck is even more sensitive to individual drivers’ styles than the same driver in a diesel truck. Other truckmakers have noted for local and close-in trucking, you don’t want to haul around battery power you don’t need, so modular packs make sense. On a diesel 18-wheeler getting 6 mpg, to add 100 miles of range, you’d load an extra 120 pounds of diesel. For a big EV truck, you’d need an extra 2,000 pounds of battery pack, roughly, to add 100 miles of range.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed in 2017 that the Tesla Semi will get up to 500 miles of range. Assuming Tesla is a leader in energy-efficiency and also in hyperbole, then it’s likely regional-trucks are capable of, and need, a range of 300-400 miles. For regional trucks, that’s about the most they’re called on for a day trip or overnight out-and-back trip. A local-only truck might need 200-300 miles of range, possibly split over two shifts, say 6 AM to 10 PM, with the overnight hours reserved for recharging at the depot.

The big win remains the belief that electrified trucks, like electric cars and SUVs, will require less maintenance, have fewer on-the-road breakdowns, and be less expensive in the very long haul.

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