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Volvo Trucks electrifies heavy vehicle market

GoAuto tests Volvo’s electric truck range as new regulations cut such rigs some slack

17 Oct 2023

VOLVO Trucks was the first manufacturer to successfully trial and launch a heavy-duty electric truck range in Australia, with the dealer network and supporting infrastructure to go with it – and will be the first to build them here when production commences in 2027.


The Swedish company has been building battery-powered heavy vehicles since 2016 when it rolled out its first electric bus, followed by a medium-duty electric truck in 2019, and most recently its heavy-duty electric truck range in 2022 – which is the type of vehicle that will emerge from Volvo’s massive Wacol factory in Brisbane.


Rolling out this electric model range comes at a good time for Volvo as it leads the heavy-duty sales race in Australia, edging ahead of longstanding leader Kenworth in the first half of 2023. 


GoAuto was given a chance to drive the trucks on a simulated road loop at the RACQ Mobility Centre test track at Mount Cotton in Queensland, where the 16-tonne GVM FL Electric, 26-tonne GVM FE Electric, and the 44-tone GCM FM and FH models were available to test, all loaded up to their full working weight. 


The fifth model within Volvo Trucks’ electric line-up is the FMX, a severe-duty prime mover suited to demanding industries like emergency services and construction, but there wasn’t one available for us to drive on the day. 


Showcasing the latest diesel technology and providing a contrast between the all-electric models were B-double and semi-trailer configured FH models, with the 500hp ‘Turbo Compound’ version of Volvo’s Euro 6 13-litre engine.


“We work a lot with stakeholders, government and third party partners to ensure the suitability of the market for the emerging technologies coming into the country,” said Volvo Trucks Australia e-mobility manager Tim Camilerri. 


We opted to jump in the diesel-powered FH models first, piloting a semi-trailer around the short drive loop. It was comfortable, smooth and plenty powerful but, as fast as the i-shift automated manual transmission works through the gears, there is a momentary power loss between changes. 


That’s to be expected, being a diesel engine, so why bother mentioning it? Because getting into the electric model, the experience is quite different. Getting up to speed has always been laborious in a truck, but electric powertrains change that. 


Up next was the FM Electric, a heavy-duty three-motor prime mover that produces a combined 490kW of continuous power and offers a range of up to 300km.


While it does have more power than its diesel counterpart, it also pulls like a literal train with no power loss at any point. It is fitted with the same 12-speed i-shift transmission but appears to use far fewer cogs to get up and moving. 


The silence is eerie, moreso in a truck than in an electric car; only road noise and the clang of a drink bottle audible once up and moving. Most notably, though, is the absence of vibration, offering by far the most comfortable truck cabin we’ve been in. 


While many passenger car manufacturers have set out to revolutionise the driving experience altogether, with hyper-futuristic interior lighting and screens that span the dash, Volvo appears to be easing its customers into electric trucks with honest, familiar cabins right down to the ignition barrel. 


“They’re made in the same factory, so it makes sense to use the same parts,” said Volvo Trucks Australia public relations and media manager, Matt Wood.


The familiar cab may have been a logical parts sharing exercise, but it feels almost strategic given truck drivers can be resistant to change – especially change for the sake of change.


Regenerative braking on a heavy-duty truck is also a game-changer, more powerful than a conventional exhaust or engine brake but with the added bonus of refilling the batteries – especially if running around at the full 44-tonne GCM. 


Much like a traditional engine brake, regen ‘strength’ can be adjusted and in its strongest position, you really don’t need to touch the brake pedal no matter how steep the hill. We were on private roads, with no road users to cut us off, but the only time we dabbed the pedal was to test it.


Among the models on offer was the ex-Australia Post FL Electric delivery truck, used in a successful six month trial and still adorning the iconic red livery with proven kilometres on the clock. 


The baby of the bunch, the FL has a single motor producing 130kW and a two-speed gearbox, offering up to 450km of range.


Around the test loop, with a few tonnes in the back, the little FL felt smaller than its GVM suggests, possibly due to the battery placement and potential lower centre of gravity. It’s more comfortable and engaging than conventional medium-duty trucks, so if driving day-to-day we’d prefer it over a diesel option.


Talking to Mr Wood about charging across the four-day driving event at the hilly Mount Cotton circuit, he was quick to confirm that the vehicles all lasted an entire day of on-track driving – even with lead-footed journalists behind the wheel. 


All models are now available for purchase although, for heavy-duty models, depending on the state, permits and exemptions may be required due to front axle weights exceeding 6.5 tonnes.


While the FH and FM models were granted permits for local testing earlier this year, legislative barriers prevented them from being used freely by transport companies keen to try emission-free options. 


That is, until a spate of recent announcements by federal and state governments aimed at accelerating decarbonisation of the national freight fleet, among them a national maximum width increase to 2.55 metres. 


Following the width increase, both South Australia and New South Wales also announced trial schemes for zero-emission trucks, permitting them to exceed existing axle load limits. 


This means Volvo’s heavy-duty FM and FH models will legally be able to operate across South Australia and New South Wales, but the transport industry is still calling for a more widespread relaxation of axle load limits for electric trucks. 


“The next logical step is the creation of a national access network for low and zero-emissions vehicles, and the alignment of the requirements and details of each state scheme,” said Heavy Vehicle Industry Australia chief advocacy officer Adele Lausberg.


For the uninitiated, or unelectrified, Volvo is pushing as hard as ever with its diesel technology too.  According to the manufacturer, the Euro 6 FH model we tested is the most efficient diesel engine Volvo has ever produced. 


Going beyond just engine tech, Volvo Trucks Australia recently imported fossil-fuel-free Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) or ‘bio-diesel’ for use in its trucks to prove it is safe to use across the range and a viable alternative to conventional diesel. 


“Overall, we are energy agnostic. We don’t see the death of the internal combustion engine, in fact we are still refining and committing to that and investing in that technology,” said Mr Camilerri. 


“But looking to further refine and open up options and availability of that product to decarbonise or be more efficient, whether it’s renewable fuels, gases, driver training, better data and understanding and specifications in terms of the aerodynamics as well.”

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