GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN. It wasn't supposed to happen—reporters weren't going to get a chance to drive Volvo's first battery electric versions of its FL cabover trucks, which will go on sale in Europe next year along with a larger FE Electric cabover. But they did get an impromptu chance, as it turned out, and Fleet Owner was there to see how these drive.
There were two FL Electrics being showed off—one a refuse truck and the other a reefer truck—here at Gothenburg's ElectriCity pavilion, a collaboration demonstrating electric vehicles and green, peaceful cities concepts that includes Volvo and a number of others. Reporters took the trucks out for a spin that dipped into Swedish traffic.
How do they feel and drive? Just picture a big golf cart. They're about as easy as a golf cart to operate, and having gone on one brief drive in the reefer truck first, I already felt seasoned driving them and it was a cinch going out in the refuse truck. They're simple to drive and are very smooth, with no engine vibration.
They are also quiet. The noise they make is something like a very subdued vacuum cleaner and is carefully engineered, explained Edward Jobson, vice president of electromobility at Volvo Trucks. These Class 7 equivalent trucks produce 69 db of sound—half as much as a diesel truck—which still allows people to hear there's a vehicle coming for road safety. They have speed governors set at 56 mph, but they'd top out otherwise around 75 mph, which Jobson said is limited by how fast the electric motor can be spun.
They are notably faster than diesel equivalents in acceleration, since electric motors have a nearly flat torque curve and essentially full power as soon as you step on the "gas" pedal.
Volvo sees electric trucks as a solution to modern trucking needs with multiple benefits. They have no tailpipe emissions and are better for the environment, though consideration needs to be given to how their charging electricity is produced; they don't create the noise pollution that diesel trucks do.
At present, with ranges for Volvo's FL Electric of up to about 186 miles per charge and the coming FE Electric up to about 124 miles, they're best suited to things like urban distribution and city waste collection, but battery technology is advancing quickly and expanding already significant possibilities.
They're multiple times more efficient than diesel trucks as well and require significantly less maintenance, and as their acquisition costs come down as more are produced, electric trucks could offer fleets substantial savings. "We add in a little [electric truck-specific] maintenance, but we take a lot out" compared to diesel truck maintenance, Jobson noted.
And since these electric trucks are so simple and comfortable to drive, they could help recruit drivers—including younger ones who aren't as experienced driving period, let alone driving things like heavy commercial vehicles.
Older drivers can appreciate these trucks just as much because they're less fatiguing to drive, Jobson noted. He said Volvo has heard "only positive feedback" from drivers who've had the chance to operate the company's electric buses, which have been growing in number and production.
Different way to drive
One thing that stands out when driving these trucks is Volvo's retarder lever at the left of the steering stalk, which is like a Jake brake. It allows the driver to click through about six steps that apply regenerative engine braking increasingly forcibly.
At the strongest setting, the vehicle "brakes" and slows to a stop as soon as you lift off the accelerator; it's possible (and fun, actually) to drive the truck with just those controls and rarely use the foundation brakes, which will also help charge the batteries and maximize range.
After watching the start of the last leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, I caught an electric Volvo bus back to Gothenburg's city center—the company offered free rides to and from the race to allow people to experience the buses as zero-emissions transport to the race. As they speed down the street, again quicker due to faster acceleration, the air circulation system is about all you hear, and it's a marked difference to then hear a diesel-powered bus drive by.
Electric heavy vehicles are still a developing technology, but they've already come quite a long way and their time has perhaps arrived. Fleets should have a look and consider if electric trucks can fit their needs and duty cycles and work out the total costs of ownership.
Click through our slideshow to see more from the ride-and-drive and other Volvo electric powered vehicles (including an electric concept truck and bus from 1995 and a prototype electric car from 1976).