What a difference five years makes.
The last time I was in Volvo’s ancestral home city of Gothenburg, Sweden, it was 2018 and the OEM – and indeed the entire global trucking industry – was just waking up to the idea that battery-electric trucks might be a viable option for zero-emission fleet operations in the future.
At the time, Volvo had all of two, medium-duty, prototype electric trucks available for drives around Gothenburg harbor – one of the first electric trucks I ever drove.
Flash forward to early September, and I was once again in Gothenburg as Volvo’s guest. And this time, on a test track a few miles away from the harbor, an array of 15 or so production-model battery-electric trucks sat lined up in the sunlight awaiting test drives.
These trucks spanned Volvo’s entire European product portfolio and were available in virtually any configuration imaginable. There were medium-duty straight trucks, heavy-duty dump trucks, tractor-trailers, and B-trains. And every single one was a cabover, of course.
Smooth Power, Quiet Performance
It's an impressive array of trucks in Gothenburg and evidence that Volvo is doing far more than just talking about an emissions-free future for trucking. The OEM is clearly investing massive amounts of money, as well as untold engineering and design hours, in these new trucks.
The results are plainly visible: Everything about these electric trucks is production-worthy, from the fit and finish to the interior appointments. These trucks are as safe, reliable, and productive as any Volvo has ever put on the road.
As I’ve said before, the only thing these trucks can’t do that a diesel truck can is match them on range. Other than that, there’s nothing second-rate about an electric truck. Quite the contrary, in fact.
I never fail to be impressed with the instant, impressive pulling power electric trucks have. These Volvo BEVs were no exception. In fact, the first feature you encounter when you leave the Volvo Trucks Center parking lot in Gothenburg is a 6% uphill grade, which you have no choice but to climb before you’ve built up any road speed. In every instance, the Volvo electric trucks easily powered up the grade without the slightest hint of trouble.
Just like on a diesel truck, you can set your engine brake as aggressively as you like. On an electric truck, it’s really more of a retarder system that determines how aggressively you want to use the regenerative braking system to put kinetic energy back into the batteries. But at its most extreme setting, the system is powerful enough to bring the truck to a complete stop on the downgrade once you’ve crested the hill.
The other thing that has to be mentioned is how amazingly smooth these Volvo electric powertrains are. You’ll catch the usual fifth-wheel lag if you’ve got a trailer behind you. But other than that, there are virtually no powertrain vibrations reverberating through the cab or the chassis. You get some road shock, of course. But the overall smoothness of the acceleration and deceleration, along with the unbelievable quietness of the powertrain, is something that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Truck drivers a couple of decades from now will look back and laugh in disbelief at how noisy and shaky today's diesel trucks are compared to the electric models that will be commonplace by that time.
Seeking the ICE Holy Grail
The following day saw us out in the dense Scandinavian forests about an hour outside of Gothenburg at the top secret Hällered proving grounds, a test facility Volvo Trucks shares with Volvo Cars. Here we saw two of the OEM's most cutting-edge zero-emission solutions, both of which are still in the research and development phase.
Volvo is about to bid farewell to diesel forever. But that doesn’t mean it thinks the internal combustion engine’s time has passed. Quite the contrary, in fact. Volvo made it clear that it is aggressively researching clean fuel options for (mostly) traditional — but advanced — ICE technologies, that will deliver range, performance and maintenance very close to what diesel ICEs have today.
Hydrogen is, of course, the Holy Grail when it comes to zero-emission ICE technology. But it is likely that different clean/renewable fuels may be used in different regions and applications. To prove that point, Volvo granted CDL holders some track time behind the wheel of its RNG-powered Class FM model, which performed exactly as advertised.
In virtually every aspect, from appearance to performance, the truck behaves almost exactly like a modern diesel truck does. It even sounds the same, although I mentioned to the engineer riding shotgun that the engine sounded just a shade quieter than a diesel powerplant does. He agreed with me and said that few drivers picked up on that difference.
My colleague, HDT Equipment Editor Jim Park, agreed with that assessment in general. But he also gave a lot of credit to the sound dampening on Volvo’s European cabovers, which he says is among the most impressive he’s experienced in his many years of driving.
The End of Range Anxiety?
The star of the show at Hällered, however, was the Volvo FM fuel cell battery-electric truck being tested. Because the truck is still in the R&D phase, Volvo wasn’t letting anyone but its engineers behind the steering wheel. But even riding shotgun, it’s clear that this fuel-cell technology has tremendous potential for clean and green long-haul applications.
From a distance, the fuel-cell-electric FH model looks a lot like a CNG-powered truck today. This is mainly due to the large, rectangular casing on the back of the cab, which houses the fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electric power.
Volvo engineers told us that usually, the fuel cells break the hydrogen down at a fairly consistent rate that is nominally not dependent on throttle inputs. In other words, adding throttle doesn’t necessarily mean you’re using hydrogen at a fast rate, as is the case with fossil fuels.
While some of the electricity created goes into the battery for storage and later use, the bulk of it is sent directly into the electric motors that propel the truck forward. So, it’s not like once all the hydrogen is gone you’ve got a fully charged battery to keep driving with.
Again, I wasn’t allowed in the driver’s seat. But from the passenger seat, the fuel-cell truck feels identical to a pure battery-electric truck in terms of performance. It’s as smooth and quiet as a battery-electric model. The acceleration is indistinguishable as well.
All that for nothing more than some steam and liquid water coming off of the fuel cell exhaust system.
The bottom line from Sweden is that all of these trucks perform exactly as Volvo promised they would. Except for range. And, given the work Volvo is doing with alt-fuel ICEs and FCBEVs, who knows? Perhaps in the future, range might not be as big a stumbling block for alt-fuel vehicle adoption as it currently is for fleets in longer-haul applications. Nothing is carved in stone yet.
And, as my short visit to Sweden made clear, Volvo is still working hard on solutions to help the transition to zero emissions as productive and painless as possible.