The potential for electric trucking became evident just after buckling the seatbelt in the cab of the Volvo FL Electric refrigerator truck and switching on the vehicle.
The sound of rain hitting the roof of the display tent at the port in Gothenburg, Sweden, was louder than the hum from the vehicle. Pulling out into a mostly vacant section of the port, the rumble of a passing diesel truck drowned the low purr of the FL’s electric engine. When it was gone, the slight squeak of the tires against the wet pavement was the loudest audible noise.
Just as startling was the lack of lag time between stepping on the accelerator and the forward movement of the truck.
There’s a quiet power to electric trucking that promises benefits for drivers and the communities they pass through. It’s the result of the absence of a combustion engine and the greater efficiency of electricity over conventional diesel fuel. Electric trucks are three to five times more energy efficient than equivalent diesel trucks, according to Tobias Bergman, product manager for alternative drivelines at Volvo Trucks.
These are significant benefits. Most people regard truck driving as a difficult and unattractive job. Diesel trucks are loud and fatiguing. That, along with long hours away from home, are among the factors contributing to a chronic shortage of drivers in the U.S. (Pay is a separate issue that electric technology won’t address.)
But electric trucking will make driving for a living an enticing proposition. It promises to create a more palatable work environment for a younger generation of drivers. The new element of charging also will encourage the freight industry to develop new models of routing, pushing the adoption of a hub and spoke transport system that will give drivers a better work-life balance.
In short drives through the port, both the refrigerated FL and an FL configured as a trash truck demonstrated handling and driving characteristics equal to or better than the diesel equivalents of the medium-duty rigs. The acceleration is better. Regenerative braking recaptures energy and slows the truck without putting wear on the brakes. The feel is go-kart meets Class 7 truck.
They could be fast — gunning the accelerator jets the truck forward — but Volvo is limiting acceleration. Too fast of a start could dangerously shift the load in the back. As long as acceleration is crisp, immediate and keeps pace with traffic flow, drivers don’t need more.
With the exception of range, the Volvo FL is just as capable as its diesel sibling. The electric FL produces up to 248 horsepower and 313 pound-feet of torque. It has a gross vehicle weight of 35,274 pounds. It takes about 1.5 hours to fully juice up the batteries with DC fast charging. Where rivals such as Freightliner and Tesla are placing motors at the wheels of their electric trucks, Volvo has taken a different approach. The FL has a single powertrain with one electric motor.
Handling is good for a truck, in part because the FL is a cabover and does not have the long snout that’s common in U.S. trucks. Both trucks are prototypes that will go into service later this year. The refrigerated truck will be used by TGM, a local freight company in Gothenburg. The refuse hauler will go to Renova, Stockholm’s garbage collector.
Volvo believes electric trucking is inevitable, especially in urban areas where regulators want to slash noise and pollution, said Magnus Koeck, Volvo Trucks North America vice president of marketing and brand management.
The key is rapid improvements in battery technology that lower the manufacturing cost and boost the distance that electric trucks travel. Increasing the energy density improves the distance the truck can travel between charges without adding battery weight that cuts into payload and profits.
“We will see battery capacity double and the cost fall by half,” Koeck told Trucks.com.
Already, the FL has a range up to 186 miles depending on its configuration. It has enough battery capacity that its cost of operation is on par with a diesel counterpart when used for refuse collection, said Edward Jobson, vice president for electromobility at Volvo Trucks.
Koeck sees operational price parity coming quickly for electric trucks used for local distribution operations. Next up are drayage operations, such as hauling containers around ports and distribution centers. These are all uses where a truck can make a circuit and then return to a central depot for charging.
Electric trucks for long-haul operations are more challenging because of the lack of long-distance charging networks and the time it takes to recharge the batteries to maximum range.
But there’s enough progress for Volvo to launch production of medium-duty trucks for local operations next year. The initial sales will be in Europe. But the company is in talks with the California Air Resources Board and others to introduce the electric versions of the FL and its larger FE Electric truck in the U.S.
Cities will be quick to recognize the benefits of electric trucks over diesel vehicles. The FL operates at about 69 decibels compared to 79 for a diesel. People generally perceive such a reduction as half the noise level, according to Volvo engineers. That decrease could pave the way for distribution trucks to operate at night and early morning hours, a practice now banned by many cities. It would lighten daytime traffic and make local freight distribution faster and more profitable.
One study, the Off Peak City Distribution project, analyzed the effects of goods transport at night in central Stockholm. It found that by avoiding peak traffic hours the trucks completed their routes in one-third the time compared with daytime operation.
Although the Volvo electric trucks are competent work tools, there are still many hurdles to commercial adoption. Price remains a concern. Like other electric truck companies, Volvo will need subsidies from environmental agencies to make the price of the vehicles appealing to potential customers.
“Our customers are not willing to pay more than they would for a diesel truck,” Koeck said.
And Volvo needs to figure out an effective sales channel.
Electric trucks represent new technology that some customers might be afraid to adopt. Other potential buyers will hesitate to jump into the market because of such rapid technology improvements. They don’t want to buy a truck that could easily be supplanted by a vehicle that has more range, a bigger payload and lower cost just a year later. Charging infrastructure remains limited and will be for some time.
The company also worries that dealers won’t be eager to sell electric trucks. Dealers will discover that electric trucks cut into profits because they won’t generate the level of maintenance and repairs that diesel trucks require.
That trend is already apparent in the 100 electric buses that Volvo has in service around Europe that share technology with the FL. They break down less than diesel buses and require less maintenance.
“You need to change the tires and do some things like changing oil in the compressor, but the service is not as frequent, and it is less work,” Jobson said.
Yet the success in using the electric bus business as a technology incubator has encouraged Volvo executives to plan for wide electric truck adoption. The company, Koeck said, “is convinced that electrification will play an increasingly important commercial and social role.”