LIGHTS On: Volvo to electrify VNR tractors

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Volvo Trucks North America has announced it will commercialize an electric version of the VNR regional tractor by 2020, with the first test units to be on the road as early as next year.

“We believe the VNR is the electric truck for North America,” said company president Peter Voorhoeve, unveiling the news to North American trade media. It reflects a corporate vision that early adopters of electric vehicles will include ports, inner-city distribution, and regional haulers.

It’s seen as more than a novelty, too. “We do see this as a serious segment,” Voorhoeve said.

Specifics about battery capacity, range, and supported applications are still under wraps, but the demonstration units will be based on the propulsion systems and batteries currently used in the European Volvo FE Electric.

The technology also continues to evolve.

“What we knew about batteries 1.5 years ago is not valid today,” observed Magnus Koeck, vice president – marketing and brand management.

But Volvo is also looking beyond the truck alone and is exploring how it will fit into a broader ecosystem.

Next year’s tests will be conducted through the Volvo Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions (LIGHTS) project, with partners including the California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, two fleets, and experts in charging infrastructure. That project is funded through $44.8 million from the California Air Resources Board.

“We need to create an environment around [the truck]. We need to create an end-to-end solution,” Voorhoeve stressed, referring to charging demands as an example. “You also need to think about how are we going to maintain those trucks?”

“What does your yard look like? What do you do for a charger?” he asked, referring to questions that have to be answered. As for charging, there are still critical questions about the size of the “tube” to deliver the required charging energy to the batteries.

In other words: “It goes a lot further than putting an electric truck on display.”

Koeck notes that many fleets showing an early interest in electric trucks have yet to answer such questions themselves.

Voorhoeve acknowledged the price of electric trucks is a moving target, too. “The cost of batteries is the most dynamic thing in the world at the moment.” Still, the gap between electric and diesel is closing. “There’s a lot of scientists trying to predict where the cross point of diesel and electric is, and it’s not that far away,” he said.

This is hardly Volvo’s only experience in electric commercial vehicles. Volvo Buses has sold more than 4,000 electrified vehicles since 2010. And corporate executives stress they have an advantage when it comes to bringing an electric truck to market, when compared to upstart manufacturers that have announced plans of their own.

“We should not underestimate the skill to build 200,000 trucks [around the world],” Koeck said. “Anyone can build one or two or 10.”

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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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