Truck Reviews, Truck Technology

Volvo shows off muscle and 780hp might

On a global scale, the last few months have been a frantic time for Volvo. First, the launch in the US of the all-new VNL conventional and most recently, the debut in Sweden of the slippery FH Aero and a big bore D17 engine taking Volvo to the top of the power parade. But how might all this ultimately impact the Australian market?
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Video: Volvo Trucks/Greg Bush

As you’d expect from someone inhabiting the executive stratosphere, Roger Alm is a consummate corporate performer.

One-on-one interviews hold no horrors for a man who started on the workshop floor and now carries the lofty titles of executive vice-president of Volvo Group and president of Volvo Trucks. Simply, he’s a big cog in a big outfit and given Volvo’s growth and vast volumes across the globe – Volvo produced around 145,000 trucks in 2023 – there’s a quiet confidence which marks a man content in crafting the big picture.

We’re in Sweden for a few reasons, among them the European launch of Volvo’s new FH Aero model, a revamped big bore engine, and an interview with Roger Alm to talk about, well, lots of things. Actually, it’s an interview almost a year in the making after a candid dinner conversation in Brisbane provoked the prospect of a second course somewhere, some day.

We’ll get to specific details on the FH Aero soon enough and likewise, the rebored engine called the D17 which, with up to 780hp and 3800Nm (2803lb-ft) of torque, ends the reign of Scania’s 770hp V8 as the western world’s most powerful production truck. Or at least ends it until Scania stokes the fire with yet another nudge of Nordic brawn.

The 780hp Volvo V8 showing off in Sweden. Image: Volvo Trucks

But first, Roger Alm: Much like the meeting in Brisbane in 2023, there’s again something in his persona which hints of a fundamental, even reserved integrity rarely apparent among the corporate elite. There’s no aloofness, just the calm, rock solid certainty of a man in charge. Sure, it would be totally naïve to think any discussion or meeting, no matter how convivial or affable, might divulge detailed plans for the future. That said though, there are some topics that provoke an innate passion. Electric trucks, for instance, and for that matter, alternative energy sources generally.

Make no mistake, this is a man committed to a carbon-free future and more to the point, intent on realising Volvo’s stated goal of net zero emissions in all its products by 2040. On the other hand, he’s equally a commercial realist and asserts the ongoing development of diesel and alternative fuels as vital elements in not only achieving greater efficiencies and lower CO2 outputs, but also meeting the wildly diverse demands of trucking operators around the globe. There is, as he states, no single solution or ‘silver bullet’ on the path to a carbon-free future.

Volvo Trucks global supremo Roger Alm. On emissions, “it’s not just about electrification … it’s also about combustion engines running on different fuels and different powertrains.” Image: Volvo Trucks

However, with relatively slow sales of battery-electric trucks after several years of hype and vigour in Volvo’s climb up the green tree, is Roger Alm disappointed with uptake of electric trucks to date, typified perhaps by production currently running at a modest 12 to 15 units a day? In effect, has the electric truck bubble burst?

‘No’ is the short answer. But then, “We are in the early stages. We have been doing electric trucks for four years but we have been doing diesel trucks for 100 years, so we are still very much in the starting phase of the electrification journey.

“Even so, we have summarised commercial operations and found that our (electric) trucks have travelled around 35 million kilometres, equal to 900 laps around the world, in 45 countries around the world, all in four years.

“Yes, the volumes are still very small compared to diesels but it’s growing and we are taking steps to be in more segments, more applications and this is something we will continue to do.” In fact, with the introduction of an electric version of the FH Aero and a low-entry FM Electric, there are now eight models in Volvo’s battery electric range.

Volvo’s new FH Aero offers both diesel and electric powertrains but an 11 per cent gain in aerodynamic efficiency is particularly beneficial to electric models. Image: Volvo Trucks

Moreover, there’s little doubt the significantly refashioned Aero cab will enhance Volvo’s electric ambitions across a range of applications. Sure, the European market will see the model offer both diesel (including the new D17 engine) and electric powertrains but Volvo insiders are unequivocal in citing the Aero’s 11 per cent improvement in aerodynamic efficiency as particularly beneficial to a battery electric truck’s performance and range.

Compared to a standard FH, the cab has been extended by 240mm to allow for a heavily rounded frontal area and along with the standard inclusion of Volvo’s new Camera Monitor System, the company claims the FH Aero ‘… can cut up to five per cent in energy consumption and emissions’.

Yet despite Roger Alm declaring the FH Aero “our most efficient truck ever”, the extended front is likely to restrict its Australian potential to battery electric roles.

Nonetheless, electrification is “… a journey that will take time and we are proud of every electric truck we put into the market,” Alm says firmly. In short, the passion and commitment to promote the creation of more infrastructure and more opportunities for battery electric trucks is unwavering.

“But it’s not just about electrification,” he emphasises, referring to the new D17 engine then doing demonstration laps at Volvo’s Experience Centre on the outskirts of corporate headquarters in Gothenburg. “It’s also about combustion engines running on different fuels and different powertrains all to bring down CO2 in different markets and in different applications.” Simply, more efficient powertrains means burning less fuel and therefore, less CO2.

Volvo’s big bore D17 engine. Effectively a rebored version of the current D16. Top rating is a thumping 780hp with 3800Nm (2802lb-ft) of torque. Image: Volvo Trucks

However, when asked if acceptance of electric trucks in the Australian market is proving particularly difficult despite Volvo’s concerted efforts to push the carbon-neutral message, Roger Alm appears to choose his words carefully. Even so, the point comes through loud and clear, citing the absence of even modest government subsidies as an ongoing stumbling block to the wider use of battery electric models.

“All parties need to come together to make the transformation happen and reduce CO2,” he remarked, soon after confirming that he will again visit Australia in March this year as part of a whirlwind tour alongside Volvo Group chief executive Martin Lundstedt and senior vice-president of Volvo Trucks International, Per-Erik Lindstrom.

Are meetings with our political leaders on the agenda? “We hope so,” he replied. “Whatever we can do, we will do.”

More recently, it has been announced their visit will coincide with a world-leading trial of 60 battery electric light and medium-duty trucks by Team Global Express (formerly Toll) at its specially constructed depot in western Sydney.

Yet as an executive who is plainly one of the trucking world’s strongest advocates for electric trucks and overall carbon neutrality, it’s an upbeat Roger Alm who insists that despite “CO2 reduction happening too slowly in some markets”, he now finds far less cynicism from operators towards electric trucks.

“There are many benefits for customers in reducing carbon emissions and these benefits are being recognised,” he asserts, further stating that up to 40 per cent of freight tasks can be done by battery electric models, and even more as developments such as an e-axle come on stream over the next few years to extend driving range.

A 780hp D17 under Volvo’s new FH Aero in a top-weight Swedish combination. Image: Volvo Trucks

Likewise, when asked if battery technology is progressing fast enough, his response was immediate and emphatic. “Battery technology will continue to improve (and) there will be many, many more innovations. I am sure of that.”

As for anyone still questioning Volvo Group’s commitment to battery electric technology, it’s worth noting the company’s recent winning bid to purchase financially stricken US battery specialist Proterra for US$210 million. The acquisition includes a new development centre for battery packs in California and an assembly factory in South Carolina.

Yet despite these developments, there appeared a subtle sense of frustration in Roger Alm’s response when it was suggested that the vast sums and technical expertise being applied to carbon reduction measures by global giants such as Volvo aren’t being matched by similar levels of initiative and effort by some governments.

“We cannot wait,” he said seriously. “At Volvo, we are extremely focussed on zero emissions. Our children and grandchildren require it.” The passion is profound.

Still, a cynic might question Volvo’s environmental sincerity given the launch of the D17 engine, a big bore high horsepower diesel seemingly certain to spur on the horsepower race with Scania.

In a heartbeat, the commercial realist came to the fore. “As I’ve said before, there is no one solution,” an adamant Roger Alm fired back. “We are a global company and we need to supply trucks for all our customers and for all applications.

“Yes, we’ve gone from 750hp (in the D16 engine) to 780hp but we’re talking about a five per cent decrease in fuel consumption and therefore, less CO2. We are reducing carbon emissions all over the globe.”

For our market, the 780hp D17 is more likely to find a home under a Mack Super-Liner snout rather than a Volvo FH16. Australia’s hot and heavy workloads place big demands on cooling. Image: Volvo Trucks

Seated alongside, Per-Erik Lindstrom quickly added, “The horsepower race is not for its own sake,” explaining that with more power and torque, a taller final drive ratio can be employed to further bring down engine speed and subsequently reduce emissions.

It was, perhaps, a case of splitting hairs on emissions but as Per-Erik also enthused, politicians in Sweden and some parts of Europe are now realising an effective way to bring down emissions is to have fewer trucks on the road, leading in some jurisdictions to the use of bigger trucks hauling higher weights.

Fair enough, but was the main motivation in moving to a 780hp rating simply to give Volvo’s flagship FH the mantle of the western world’s most powerful production truck? Or as the question was more bluntly put, ‘to piss off Scania?’ in what will probably amount to an escalation of the increasingly historic horsepower head-butt between the two Swedish bulls.

Both men chuckled but it was Roger Alm who said seriously, “We respect our competition but what we do is for our customers.”

Aussie angles

Technically, the D17 is a Euro 6 engine and effectively a rebored version of the D16, with bore diameter increased to 149mm compared to the 16 litre engine’s 144mm, using the same crankshaft, rods and stroke length.

Changes have, however, been made to enhance overall efficiency. According to a surprisingly brief press statement from Volvo, ‘the D17 is equipped with a single efficient turbocharger that boosts engine responsiveness (and) retains Volvo’s patented wave piston design to optimise combustion and reduce emissions, while the new injection system ensures the best fuel economy and increased peak cylinder pressure enables high power output.’

Volvo’s mildly upgraded range of FM, FMX and FH models. After 30 years, we wonder is this the last evolution of the supremely successful FH family? Image: Volvo Trucks

Importantly, Volvo adds that ‘engine brake power is increased across the entire speed range in the D17.’ There is, the company states, up to 520kW of braking horsepower now available while the engine is also said to weigh 70kg less than its predecessor.

Horsepower ratings range from 600 to 700 and 780hp with respective torque peaks of 3000Nm, 3400Nm and a stump ripping 3800Nm. Again, Volvo says, ‘The higher power and torque levels translate into faster engine response (and) improved fuel efficiency.’

Vitally, Volvo’s benchmark I-shift automated transmission ‘has been updated to handle up to 3800Nm, and internal gearbox efficiency has been further improved on the 3000Nm and 3400Nm versions’.

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What’s more, the company says ‘the D17 is certified to run on HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil) in all power ratings. The 700hp version is also certified to run on 100 per cent biodiesel (B100).’

For the European market, the D17 in all three power ratings will go on sale in mid-2024 and be available under the new FH16 Aero cab and a mildly updated FH16. However, there will be no change to the FH16 model name, to FH17 for example. Bigger engine or not, FH16 is a well-regarded model in its own right and, according to several Volvo insiders, it’s simply a title too popular to replace.

But is this mildly refreshed FH (and FM) cab the last evolution of one of the most successful cab-over heavy-duty trucks ever built? After all, Volvo’s flagship model has now been in production for 30 years with more than 1.4 million units sold around the world, suggesting a new generation will break cover within the next few years.

Side view of FH Aero. The heavily rounded frontal area extends the cab by 240 mm and for Australia, it’s likely to be only used in electric models. Image: Volvo Trucks

From Roger Alm down, Volvo insiders could not be drawn into discussions on the FH’s future. Asked directly, Roger Alm’s only response was, “We love the FH and it will continue for some time.”

Meanwhile, it came as no surprise to hear Australia played a significant role in the D17’s engine’s testing regime, said to be at gross weights up to 130 tonnes. More to the point though, while there’s little doubt the D17’s 600 and 700hp settings will be soon enough offered here under Volvo’s FH cab, it’s hard to imagine the 780 version finding a home under a Volvo in our part of the world.

Simply put, if the previous 750hp D16 rating couldn’t be adequately cooled under a Volvo cab in Australia’s hot and heavy conditions, there’s probably less likelihood of the 780hp D17 coping with big weights in big temperatures under the Swedish cab-over.

Here’s the thing though, it’s now apparent that Volvo’s clandestine GTT (Global Truck Technology) division has been for some time testing the bigger engine in the Mack Super-Liner of a high-profile Queensland roadtrain fleet.

So, it seemed more than reasonable to ask Roger Alm, ‘If the 750 couldn’t be adequately cooled under a Volvo in Australian conditions, isn’t the 780 more likely to be applied to Mack?’

It was hard to tell if the answer came with a smile or a smirk but either way, Roger Alm said shrewdly, “We have parked that question for a time. Maybe we will have some good things for later (but) if we do it for Australia, we will be sure it’s right for Australia.”

The next question was a long shot but given that Mack had already slid into the conversation: ‘Okay, but while we’re on Mack, is the new Volvo VNL conventional recently launched in America ultimately the platform for an entirely new Mack cab?’

A few seconds of silence, a sharp stare and finally a wry grin. “We will have to leave that to our Mack colleagues to answer.” Like I said, it was a long shot but even so, maybe not too far off the money.

Time was almost up but not before a final question excited a resolute response from both Roger Alm and Per-Erik Lindstrom. Both men are openly staunch supporters of Volvo Group Australia (VGA) and specifically, local assembly at Brisbane’s Wacol production plant.

Side view of FH Aero. The heavily rounded frontal area extends the cab by 240 mm and for Australia, it’s likely to be only used in electric models. Image: Volvo Trucks

However, it’s not so long ago that Wacol endured supply shortfalls that led to the short-term importation of some fully built-up models and consequently, concerns about the factory’s long-term prospects. Quashing those concerns was, it appeared, a major imperative when they were asked why Wacol remains so important to Volvo when Australia is, by any measure, such a fiercely demanding, hugely cost-competitive yet in volume terms, relatively small market?

Per-Erik started the ball rolling, succinctly stating, “We like competition and Australia has taught us a lot.”

But it was his boss who appeared to revel in the opportunity. “Volvo last year had a record market share in Australia and we are very happy with what has been achieved,” an earnest Roger Alm remarked. “More than 4000 units (Mack and Volvo) makes Australia a solid and important business for Volvo and Wacol is a critical part of Volvo’s future. Its viability is very strong.”

As he has previously, he was also quick to confirm that electric trucks will be built in Wacol, though there’s still no timeline on when production might start.

Nonetheless, “Australia is a good market for us,” he concluded. “We like being there.”

Obviously!

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