This article also appears in
Subscribe now »
Volvo engineers converted North America-spec VNR tractors to battery power using powertrain elements from electric trucks already running in Europe. (VTNA)

Next steps toward battery-electric Class 8 trucks

Common architectures and shared technologies allow Volvo Trucks to speed up electric-truck conversion, but battery and infrastructure challenges remain.

Volvo LIGHTS, Volvo Group’s pilot project in California to introduce battery-electric semi tractors to the U.S., is moving both incredibly fast and frustratingly slow. On the speedy side of things, we have the first five trucks that two of Volvo’s partners, NFI Transportation and Dependable Supply Chain Services, have been using since Volvo held an introductory showcase for LIGHTS in February.

These trucks were put together in less than nine months by taking North America-spec VNR tractors and converting them to battery power using powertrain elements from electric trucks that are already on the roads in Europe. Volvo signed the contract to make them in March 2019 and delivered the five trucks to California in December. In June 2020, the company deployed its first pilot VNR Electric truck as part of the LIGHTS project, at the Volvo Trucks North America TEC Equipment dealership in Fontana, California. The zero-emission truck will transport local parts between the TEC Equipment dealerships in Fontana and La Mirada. 

On the flip side, LIGHTS is moving slow because the process of shifting even just a few Class-8 trucks to electric drive takes a lot of work. Work like talking to partners about ways to route the trucks so there won’t be any range issues, and how to install DC fast chargers and overnight chargers to keep the trucks moving. The holistic approach that makes up the entire Volvo LIGHTS project also includes renewable energy generation in the form of solar panels, workforce generation and overall grid upgrades – and that all takes time.

Common architecture, shared technologies
There’s a reason why converting the VNR tractors to electric has been a swift process. Volvo Group uses the CAST (Common Architecture and Shared Technologies) system for its electrification strategy, which means converting the diesel-powered VNR to electric drive for LIGHTS did not start from scratch. Volvo already had CAST-compatible driveline solutions, systems and components that it uses in its all-electric buses as well as the European FL and FE electric trucks. 

The VNR Electric trucks can be set up to use either four or six 66-kWh battery packs taken from Volvo’s other heavy-duty electrified vehicles. Those packs contain 50 kWh of usable energy, offering a total of either 200 or 300 kWh in the VNR Electrics and an unspecified amount of range. The 260-kW continuous-power motors and two-speed transmissions used in the VNR Electric trucks also come from the previous Volvo HD EVs.

Volvo’s charging partners in the LIGHTS project include Greenlots (a Shell company) and ABB. ABB says that its HVC-150 DC Fast Charger will work well for fleets with multiple electric trucks, since the installation process can put a 150-kW power cabinet up to 450 ft (137 m) from the charge boxes, of which there can be up to three. These 50-kW power modules offer DC output voltage up to 920 volts and can charge the trucks at a rate of more than 75 miles of range per hour. A big benefit for overnight charging is that the drivers can plug their trucks in when they return to base and the system will charge the trucks in sequence overnight, without the need for anyone to unplug the cable and then plug it into another truck. 

As part of LIGHTS, the Port of Long Beach will add a public heavy-duty 150-kW DC fast charging station for drayage truck operations. In addition, Trillium, a company owned by Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, will install one of the first publicly accessible fast-charging truck stations at a station in Anaheim. This will involve two heavy-duty, 150-kW fast chargers that will let fleet operators recharge their e-trucks while out on routes.

Volvo is working with its partners to think about when and how this sort of on-the-go charging will even be necessary. As mentioned above, the range issue is being kept vague at this point, and all Volvo is saying publicly at this time is that the LIGHTS trucks will be used on routes that are between 75 and 175 miles (120 and 280 km) long. Exactly how much range the VNR Electrics will offer when they go on sale will be made public later this year.

This is due to two factors. First, Volvo is continuously working on the batteries and, second, the packs need to be tested in real-world situations. While there are few VNR Electrics in use now, a total of 23 will be part of LIGHTS as it continues into 2021, so there will be many chances to test the packs and powertrains.

Advancing battery technology
Lars Stenqvist, Volvo Group’s chief technology officer, said he has teams working on three different generations of battery technology for electric vehicles. Battery technology advances so quickly that, “it’s not good enough to work on one generation, then launch and start work on the second one,” he said. “You need to work in parallel with the cell suppliers and together with your own team designing the packs and then go for verification and validation in order to have the right products out on the market.”

Exactly what defines a generation for Volvo’s batteries is also a bit nebulous, but Stenqvist said that in order to be considered a new generation, improvements to energy density and lower cost must be big. “It’s not two or five or seven percent; it’s significant,” he said. Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA), made it clear that the LIGHTS showcase was just that, and not a commercial launch for Volvo’s e-trucks, so these kinds of changes and updates are to be expected.

The first five LIGHTS trucks had been tested for about 2,000 miles (3,220 km) before the LIGHTS showcase took place in February, but much more needs to happen. “We’ve been driving them empty so far and the only thing I can tell you is that the results are very positive,” Voorhoeve said at that event. “Now, our customers are going to drive them laden so we will see what that does, to what extent does it stick to our expectations.”

As it moves forward with testing, VTNA will also figure out specific technical details about the commercial VNR Electrics it will sell. By the end of 2020, Volvo plans to have a number of VNR Electric versions available for commercial sales. These include both straight trucks and tractors in three axle configurations: 4x2, 6x2 liftable, and 6x4. The total gross vehicle weight limit will be 66,000 pounds.

VTNA will build the electric VNRs for customers at its New River Valley assembly plant in Dublin, Virginia, on the same line as the diesel models, using the same chassis, rails and cabin. Only the powertrains will be different.

Continue reading »