The atmosphere’s electric at Daimler and Volvo Group

Pressure is mounting on truck manufacturers to provide electric options

Determined not to be outdone by arch-rival Daimler in electric truck development news, Volvo Group has revealed sketchy details of its first all-electric (battery-powered) truck: a two-axle 16-tonner promised to be in full production in Europe next year.

The first two FL Electric trucks begin operational trials this month with two fleets based in Volvo Group’s home city of Gothenburg, Sweden. The operators are TGM (Transport Göteborg Marstrand), part of the huge DB Schenker multi-modal logistics group; and Renova, a waste and recycling specialist owned by ten municipalities in western Sweden.

Volvo’s announcement of the impending addition of an electric model to its FL truck range, spanning gross weights from 10 to 16 tonnes (on 19.5-inch wheels), follows last month’s news from Daimler that the first UK operators trials of battery-powered Fuso Canter 7.5-tonners have begun with big fleet operators such as Wincanton, DPD and Hovis.

Ten heavier Mercedes-Benz eActros all-electric trucks from Daimler (at 18 tonnes GVW in two-axle form and 25 tonnes GVW in three-axle form) start operator trials throughout continental Europe this month.

Mercedes-Benz eActros
Mercedes-Benz eActros

Pressure on manufacturers is building

Truck manufacturers are under mounting pressure from local and national governments, as well as from a growing number of operators, to add battery-powered models to their product line-ups. Jonas Odermalm, head of product strategy at Volvo Trucks for the FL and FE ranges (up to 26 tonnes GVW), says the FL Electric development story began in earnest two years ago.

“In spring 2016 we were asked by Gothenburg’s sustainable waste and water department to examine the possibility of developing an entirely electrically powered refuse truck,” he recalls.

“The aim was to use it in a project to find out how smarter and more sustainable transport can contribute to a more attractive urban environment.”

The ensuing project involved close co-operation between Volvo Trucks, the Gothenburg local authority, Joab (a big Swedish manufacturer of refuse-collection truck bodywork, skip-loader, hook-loader and swap-body equipment) and Renova.

“We began by examining the route that the electrically powered refuse truck would take and the configuration of the vehicles currently being used on this route,” says Odermalm.

“How far do they drive, what speed do they reach, how heavily loaded are they, how many stops do they make per shift, is the road hilly or flat?”

One aim was a five-tonne payload at a gross vehicle weight of 19 tonnes. A typical daily route for a Gothenburg refuse-collection truck ranges between 60 and 70 kilometres, with 128 stops for waste collection. The truck body’s compactor equipment is also electrically powered.

Drawing on electric bus knowledge

Like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo Trucks is coy about the precise sources of much of the equipment used in its electric truck driveline. But it is clear that both manufacturers are leaning heavily on experience with electrically-powered buses.

The ZF drive axle in the eActros, for instance, is based on the AVE130 low-floor “portal” axle which is familiar in Mercedes buses with hybrid (diesel/electric) and fuel-cell drivelines. For the electric truck this axle is said to have been “completely redesigned” and mounted higher, increasing ground clearance to more than 200mm.

Mercedes-Benz eActros schematic
eActros schematic

While the Volvo FL Electric has a single electric motor, almost certainly the same Siemens unit employed in the 4,000-plus hybrid and full electric Volvo buses sold since 2010, the eActros has two electric motors, probably from ZF, mounted close to the rear axle hubs. Each of these has a nominal maximum power rating of 125kW, with maximum torque of 485Nm. The Volvo FL’s single electric motor is rated at 185kW with maximum torque of 425Nm.

On the crucial question of battery-charging time, Mercedes claims the eActros battery pack needs between three and eleven hours to be fully recharged “assuming a realistic charging capacity of 20 to 80kW from a mobile charging device at a fleet depot.”

Volvo Trucks is a little more specific about the FL Electric, putting battery charging time from fully drained to fully charged at between one and two hours with a DC (direct current) fast-charger, and up to ten hours with an AX (alternating current) slow charger.

Maximum range on a full battery charge is put at “up to 300km (185 miles)” for the FL, “up to 200km (125 miles)” for the eActros.

Volvo Trucks electric motor
Volvo Trucks electric motor

Managing environmental sensitivities

Both trucks use lithium-ion batteries. Lars Mårtensson, environment and innovation director at Volvo Trucks, recognises the sensitivity about the environmental credentials of this type of power source, and especially the cobalt used in it. One of the world’s main sources of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We naturally do not approve any materials for our products that are mined or manufactured in an unacceptable way – this is clearly stated in our code of conduct,” says Mårtensson.

“We work together with our various suppliers to chart the origins of our raw materials. In order to drive this development, Volvo Group together with a number of other automotive manufacturers created an organisation called Drive Sustainability, which focuses on examining and improving working conditions and environmental impact in raw material supply chains.

“Many issues still have to be resolved, but the measures we are taking are important steps.”

Concern among vehicle operators and many others about what happens to lithium-ion batteries of all kinds when they reach the end of their working life is also acknowledged by Volvo Group.

“We are involved in various projects where batteries from heavy electric vehicles get a second lease of life and are reused for energy storage,” says Jonas Odermalm.

“All the questions about the handling of batteries have not yet been solved, but we are working actively within the group and with other stakeholders to drive development and find the necessary solutions.”

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.