Volvo FL Electric Photo: Aaron Marsh/ Fleet Owner
Volvo Trucks debuted the FL Electric battery-electric cabover, showing off this one with a refrigerated body as well as a refuse collection truck, with a larger FE Electric set to be unveiled shortly. Both models will go on sale in Europe next year.

Electric trucks as a human imperative

Volvo Trucks moves forward with fully electric heavy trucks now being demoed and to be offered first in Europe

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN. Drawing on the electric powertrains it's been building into transit buses for years, Volvo Trucks unveiled a battery electric version of its FL cabover, the equivalent of a Class 7 truck in North American terms. The company sees electric trucks as not only as a more efficient alternative to diesel power, ultimately, but a big part of helping solve what's become a quality of life problem in cities around the world.

On that note, Volvo's electric trucks—or at least their electric configuration in other models, since the FL and larger FE, a light Class 8 equivalent for which Volvo is also launching an electric version three weeks from now, aren't sold in the United States—won't be offered in the North American lineup just yet. But the FL Electric was shown off for the first time Wednesday morning and will be put to work in pilot usage tests here in Gothenburg, the auto and truck maker's headquarters city, through the city's ElectriCity collaboration.

[Go to ride-and-drive of the Volvo FL Electric cabover]

Humankind's new problem that's come about thanks to significant population shifts to metro regions is readily apparent: cities have become increasingly intractable with passenger vehicle and truck traffic. Fold in general population growth, growing e-commerce shipments, and other burgeoning transportation needs, and the urban conundrum is actually exacting a toll on health and life.

That's in terms of noise levels that are keeping tens of millions of people from sleeping at night. The risk of heart attacks and a shortened life span are increased. Asthma and pulmonary disease rates are rising in areas with more concentrated vehicles because of air pollution. Greater traffic congestion is a large contributor to vehicle collisions of all kinds and resulting injuries and deaths, not to mention losses due to wasted time and less productivity.

"60% of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2030," said Anna Thordén, project manager for electromobility at Volvo Trucks. "That's an increase of a bit over one billion people. Transportation will increase by about 50% in the same period of time.

"I'm trying to paint a picture of what an enormous challenge we have ahead of us," she emphasized. "At Volvo Trucks, with this new electric truck, we believe we're not just launching a new truck model—it's an opportunity for us to address these challenges."

A transformational change is needed, the company argues, with many cities around the world already with poor air quality or on the borderline of what's acceptably healthy today. "We can't go on like this," contended Tobias Bergman, product manager for alternative drivelines at Volvo Trucks.

Environmental and (growing) business case

Volvo has been talking a lot this year about the rising potential of electric power in trucks as an efficient fleet hauling solution, including feasibility in the North American market and its particular duty cycles. The company also points to electric power as an air and noise pollution reducer and, thanks to electric trucks' very quiet operation, also a problem-solver in terms of being able to operate in dense urban environments at off-peak hours or even in the middle of the night.

Some cities prohibit or restrict that currently, Thordén noted, because of diesel trucks' noise. Since they have no exhaust emissions, electric trucks can also be used in indoor terminals and environmental zones.  

Photo: Aaron Marsh/ Fleet Owner

The Volvo Trucks FL Electrics were upfit as a refuse and refrigerated trucks. They have vibration-free operation and a noise output of 69 db, which is half as loud as a diesel truck. As they were test-driven at their premiere, seagulls flying overhead were noticeably louder.

A large part of what's advancing electric trucks stems from rapidly improving battery technology. The cost of batteries is coming down, and at the same time, their capacity is going up. That also means the weight of electric trucks is decreasing, since smaller battery banks can be used and allow electric trucks to handle the payloads fleets require. And as more electric trucks are built, their acquisition cost—still at a premium vs. diesel trucks—will come down as well. 

That's already happening. Edward Jobson, vice president of electromobility at Volvo Trucks, noted that for waste collection applications, electric and diesel Volvo trucks will be about even in total cost of ownership. Diesel trucks have much higher fuel and maintenance costs over time, which is a another advantage of electric trucks over the lifecycle of the vehicle. 

When choosing an electric truck, fleets can balance between battery size, payload, and driving range required. "Volvo is very good at helping our customers in optimizing their vehicles" in that regard, Thordén said. "As they optimize their electromobility solution, we can give advice on what charging system to use, how many batteries, and so on."

There are nuances to consider. For example, fast-charging for battery electric trucks, which the Volvo FL and FE Electrics will offer, can be very useful for a fleet. But just like with a smartphone, battery life will be shortened if the truck is always fast-charged vs. slower AC charging typically done overnight.

Bergman explained that fleets thinking of utilizing electric vehicles may have additional options: Do you really need longer overall range, or can you lighten up the battery bank and boost payload capacity with less battery power onboard if you have an opportunity to fast-charge trucks midday?

Coming to America

In the European lineup, Volvo's FL will offer an electric motor that produces a maximum of 248 hp. and continuous 174 hp. with 313 lbs-ft. of torque, with a maximum of up to 11,801 lbs-ft. of torque at the rear axle. The larger FE will feature a dual electric motor capable of 496 hp. maximum and continuous 349 hp. and 627 lbs.-ft. of torque, and a max of up to 20,652 lbs-ft. of torque at the rear axle.

Their lithium-ion batteries weigh just under 1,150 lbs. each and the trucks can carry up to six of them, which gives the FL Electric a range of up to about 186 miles and the FE Electric up to 124 miles per charge. DC fast charging takes from 1-2 hours for the FL and approximately 1.5 hours for the FE, and regular AC charging for the trucks is 10 hours.

The OEM believes, as many do, that electric trucks aren't going to happen like flipping a light switch, as it were. They're going to filter into heavier trucks first for uses like refuse collection and beverage delivery and other urban area distribution. And as more are produced and batteries continue to improve, they'll eventually make their way into more demanding range applications like regional- and long-haul trucking.

Volvo launched hybrid electric powertrains/ drivelines for its buses around 2010; together with the battery electric buses it has sold, the company now has some 4,000 buses in operation around the world with electric power of some kind. The first Volvo FE Electric will be a refuse truck developed together with European refuse collection bodybuilder Faun that will start operating early next year Hamburg, Germany.

"Volvo Trucks is convinced that electrification will play an increasingly important commercial and social role in the future, starting with urban transportation where we will see greater concentrations of vehicles and other equipment that can be powered by electricity," said Magnus Koeck, vice president of marketing and brand management at Volvo Trucks North America.

"This technology is maturing quickly, and we will eventually test Volvo's electric truck offering in North American customer applications to validate how customer operations and duty cycles are best served by the technology," he added. "The initial focus will be on heavy local delivery and shorter-distance, last-mile logistics applications where trucks can return to a central terminal and no public charging infrastructure would be necessary."


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