Truck Reviews

Volvo zaps the Gap

It took a little haggling and a heap of hope, but we clinched an exclusive drive of Volvo’s top-shelf FH Electric on public roads. And not just roads around the ’burbs, but the notoriously demanding haul up and down Cunninghams Gap.
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Video: Volvo Trucks Australia/Greg Bush

It was a straightforward question by Volvo Group Australia’s e-mobility manager Tim Camilleri that had his audience thinking: Just a decade ago, maybe less, would any of us have really believed we’d be today driving an all-electric prime mover pulling a loaded trailer on a Brisbane test track?

An answer, I guess, depended on the individual but this brain immediately flickered, ‘No, probably not.’

Next day though, I had good cause to ask myself something even more candid: Just a few years ago, could I have possibly imagined driving an all-electric semi-trailer up and down the famously hard slog of Cunninghams Gap?

This time the answer was blatantly definite: Absolutely not!

Steve Brooks takes the Volvo FH Electric for a run up Cunninghams Gap. Photo by Volvo Group Australia

Yet, thinking about it, maybe naivety had been clouding the view. After all, such has been the pace of technological change over recent years that nowadays, nothing seems out of the question. Or as Tim Camilleri casually added, “We are in a time of great transformation and change.”

Few would argue, but all this introspection actually started a few weeks earlier with a seemingly benign invitation to attend a half-day ‘Volvo Trucks Drive Program’ at what is these days known as the RACQ Mobility Centre at Mt Cotton in Brisbane’s south-east.

For decades it was known more generally as the Mt Cotton driver training and test circuit, and over the course of all that time right up to the present day, it’s hard to think of a truck brand which hasn’t at one time or another tested, launched, showcased or demonstrated a new model or critical update on Mt Cotton’s sweeping circuit. Diesels, all of them.

All charged up and somewhere to go. With 100 per cent charge, the dash readout indicated a driving range of barely 200 km. Fortunately, it proved to be a fairly conservative estimate.

Breaking the mould, however, Volvo’s drive program was two-fold, designed to not only showcase its latest range of I-Save Euro 6 diesel models but also, further highlight the Swedish maker’s leading commitment to the introduction of battery electric trucks. Obviously enough, the end goal (other than ultimately selling more trucks) was to demonstrate that Volvo is, as the company put it, ‘truly driving progress towards a cleaner, more efficient future.’

A worthy and typically well-managed exercise for sure, and over the course of four days groups of customers and dealers, business partners and media were given the opportunity to drive and compare loaded examples of everything from Volvo’s fuel-conscious I-Save models in single trailer and B-double form to its heavy-duty FM and FH electric trucks. Likewise, and certainly not to be ignored given their undeniable potential for local distribution duties were a couple of medium- duty FL and FE electric rigid models, though for whatever reason, these carried no load.

Still, and as cynical as it may seem, the thought of flying to Brisbane to do little more than spend a few hours driving different models – even electric models – on Mt Cotton’s familiar circuits was neither enticing nor exciting, particularly when we’d already driven FM Electric and FH Electric articulated combinations a year earlier on Swedish roads.

So, without putting too fine a point on it, a request was made to drive one of Volvo’s two electric heavies – preferably the FH – on public roads the day after the Mt Cotton event. Gratefully, and somewhat surprisingly, the company agreed. Indeed, we gained far more than asked for but we’ll come to that shortly.

This was one of the FH Electric’s first runs on the open road. It’s very early days but the smoothness is extraordinary.

Meantime, for most attendees at Mt Cotton over the four days, this would be their first experience at the helm of a heavy-duty electric truck. More to the point though, Volvo was keen to emphasise that despite

the inevitable emergence of battery electric trucks and further down the evolutionary track, hydrogen- fuelled electric trucks, the days of diesel are far from done. In fact, not by a long shot and with its turbo- compound, high torque 500hp I-Save models as a prime example, Volvo’s unmistakeable message was that its diesel efficiency is today greater than ever, with even bigger efficiency gains likely before a new world order of zero emissions eventually drifts to dominance.

What’s more, while time in the trucks at Mt Cotton was extremely limited, there was at least the opportunity to compare similarly loaded diesel and electric models on the same track at much the same weight. Hill starts, for instance, where
an electric truck’s constant torque output suggests a significantly smoother lift-off than its diesel counterpart.

And so, on the first pinch of a short, sharp climb on the Mt Cotton track, an FH 500 I-Save towing a single trailer and said to be grossing around 40 tonnes was brought to a standstill. Then, automatically starting in crawler gear with ‘Hill Hold’ engaged (seriously, you just have to love ‘Hill Hold’), the I-shift box made six shifts before levelling out in 8th gear. Slick and smooth, for sure, but not without the drivetrain displaying some mild torque wind-up in the first few gears as the engine’s healthy peak torque of 2800Nm (2065lb-ft) kicked in from around 1000rpm.

Repeating the exercise a short time later in what was said to be a similarly loaded FH Electric, its six batteries dispensing continuous outputs of 490kW (666hp) and 2400Nm (1770lb-ft) of torque, the I-shift transmission automatically started in 4th gear and made just two super-smooth shifts to also crest the climb in 8th gear. Notably, there wasn’t the slightest sense of torque wind-up and truly, the effort was smooth beyond description.

Again though, there needed to be more to the exercise than a couple of hill starts on a test track and vitally, Volvo had not only agreed to our request for a road run but rather than simply sauntering around city and suburban streets, decided to
stretch the operational envelope with an ambitious 200km thrust from Volvo’s Wacol HQ to the top of Cunninghams Gap and back.

By any measure, Cunninghams is a long, hard haul and wisely, company insiders had a week or so earlier discreetly tested the water by running the 6×2 FM combination, grossing close to 40 tonnes, over the same route.

Part of Volvo’s electric line-up at Mt Cotton. FH is obviously the flagship and was our choice for a first road run.

Their aim, of course, was to assess if the battery six-pack had enough power to do the distance, knowing the drag up Cunninghams and the high likelihood of being stopped on the steep grade by ongoing roadworks would suck plenty of energy from the battery packs.

Likewise, Volvo was keen to know how much battery recharge would ensue from the regenerative braking system with its highly effective downhill speed control function on the long run down the hill.

Anyway, word has it that after gaining a significant recharge on the descent, the single-drive 6×2 outfit made it back to Wacol with just a few percentage points of power to spare, no doubt much to the relief of the truck’s driver, Volvo Group Australia’s versatile media and public relations manager Matt Wood.

Then it was our turn, only this time in the tandem- drive FH Electric which, like its FM sibling, is currently the only one of its kind in Australia.

Tech talk

Hooked to a lighter trailer than the day before at Mt Cotton and grossing just a tad under 35 tonnes – almost 10 tonnes under the 44 tonnes gross combination mass (GCM) rating of both the FM and FH electric models – some might suggest our run was considerably less than a conclusive appraisal of the FH Electric’s real world abilities.

Fair enough, but equally, this was also the FH Electric’s first assault on an Australian highway with anything like the severity of the Cunninghams’ climb. Again, it’s worth reiterating that these are very early days and while Volvo remains a world leader totally committed to the pursuit of zero emissions transport, the road to the future will be trod carefully and patiently. The motto, if there is one, appears to be ‘hasten slowly’.

It is, after all, one thing to stretch the envelope of possibility and something else to tear it apart with a highly ambitious exercise and a ‘flat’ truck returning home on the end of a tow hook. It’s never a good look and as Volvo’s local vice- president Gary Bone succinctly stated, “Sustainability is a long burn,” meaning the transition to zero emissions trucks will not be an overnight event.

Besides, Volvo’s local team had shown considerable faith in handing over the reins of its one and only FH Electric and this commentator certainly didn’t want the title of Captain Hook. Nonetheless, as Volvo’s Matt Wood mentioned several times, the run up the Gap and back would be its toughest test to date.

Volvo’s FH 500 I-Save model doing demo laps at Mt Cotton. Diesel is far from finished.

As technology stands at the moment, Volvo has progressed to its third generation of batteries, explaining in an earlier press statement from Sweden, ‘The high energy density traction batteries use the latest generation of lithium-ion cell technology (and) an electric truck with six battery packs has … a range of up to 300km.’

It is, however, worth noting that the overall efficiency and subsequent driving range of an electric truck are dependent on many factors similar to diesel models, such as load, ease or severity of the route, and driving style. Indeed, a heavy right foot has the potential to syphon electric power even more effectively than it drains diesel so the current 300km range limit is perhaps more hopeful than probable.

In the FM and FH, the battery six-pack powers three electric motors coupled to the enduring I-shift 12-speed automated transmission programmed with what Volvo describes as, ‘a unique new gear shifting strategy optimised for electric operations (and) together, the motors and gearbox form a powerful electric drive unit that offers unprecedented, high- efficiency drivability’.

What’s more, as Jonas Odermalm, Volvo’s vice-president of electro-mobility product explained late last year in Sweden, “Because the truck always starts in the highest possible gear, energy efficiency and savings are achieved thanks to minimised gear shifting. At the same time, lower gears are available for steep roads or in starting situations that require additional torque and control.” In other words, the broad ratio spread of the I-shift box is tailored specifically to the needs of the electric propulsion system.

Technology, however, is an endlessly evolving exercise and Volvo does not hide the fact that in maybe three of four years from now, I-shift will be replaced in the electric truck powertrain by an electric rear axle, or e-axle in modern parlance.

Moreover, it does not take an engineering guru to figure that the main goal of replacing a conventional transmission with
an e-axle is to free up chassis space for more batteries, thereby increasing driving range. Or as Volvo states, ‘The new e-axle allows even more batteries on the truck by integrating the transmission into the rear axle (to) create opportunities for long distance transports to also be electrified.’

Hill start on Mt Cotton highlighted the remarkable smoothness of the FH Electric compared to its FH 500 diesel equivalent.

Meanwhile, don’t be too surprised if the e-axle comes on stream in Sweden as early as 2025, when customer trials are expected to start on Volvo’s hydrogen fuel cell electric truck. But that’s a story for a day well down the track.

As we’ve written before though, all these evolutionary events are part of a bigger picture slowly emerging through the shifting veil of modern technology and its place in commercial and operational reality.

Nothing is yet entirely clear except for the indisputable fact that Volvo is among a group of the world’s leading commercial vehicle innovators pursuing distinct paths to carbon-free trucks; battery electric, fuel cell electric and internal combustion engines that run on renewable fuels like biogas, hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO), or so-called ‘green hydrogen’ produced by energy from wind, solar or hydro systems.

Most experts in the renewable energy field now predict all these technologies will play a part in ultimately achieving carbon-free road transport rather than one technology emerging as an environmental silver bullet.

Whatever, battery electric is the current spearhead and while Volvo both here and abroad doesn’t shy from its commitment to a carbon-free future, nor does it shy from the scale of the task ahead or acceptance of the fact that an electric heavy such as the FH fits a highly select clientele. In fact, determining which haulage operations are actually compatible to an electric truck – large or small – remains an ongoing exercise aided in large part by what Volvo calls its electric route simulator (ERS), designed specifically to remove much of the guesswork around driving range.

Again though, these are infant days and there’s little doubt Volvo is on its own learning curve, steadily building a picture of possibilities and potential. Like, the feasibility of a run up Cunninghams Gap and back, for example.

Quiet achiever

After demo duties the day before at Mt Cotton, the FH Electric had been on the charger at Volvo’s Wacol logistics centre most of the night to ensure it was fully charged for the next day. Still, with the digital dash showing 100 per cent charge yet a driving range of just 202km, it’s perhaps easy to appreciate why there was a quiet fusion of excitement and apprehension in the cab as the unit silently mingled with the mid-morning motoring masses. Going on the initial dash readout, it seemed there’d be barely enough ‘juice’ to make it back.

This time, VGA’s Matt Wood was in the passenger seat and with his earlier run in the FM Electric as a guide, it seemed astute to accept the suggestion that the truck’s adaptive cruise control system set at a modest 85km/h would make most effective use of available power.

And no doubt it did, just as there’s no doubt that a couple of southbound linehaulers caught behind weren’t too impressed with the electric truck’s gentle pace. Consequently, there was a certain sense of relief pulling into the BP at Aratula to take stock of the 70km leg since leaving Wacol and let the big bangers punch ahead.

Parked up at Wacol after the run to the Gap and back. According to dash figures, there was still 20 per cent battery charge left and up to 50km driving range. The result was better than expected.

According to Volvo’s calculations, the FH needed around 66 per cent of battery power remaining at Aratula if it was to make the run up the Gap and a turnaround point a few kilometres further on, and subsequently make it back to Wacol. Fortunately, the outward trip had been relatively easy on energy stocks with the dash readout at Aratula showing 70 per cent still remaining and a potential driving range of 154km. Sweet!

Yet as regular runners know only too well, it’s at this point where the Cunninghams’ climb starts in earnest and with auto mode allowed to make gear selections, the FH Electric handled the fluctuating grades easily, migrating between 8th and 9th gear with road speed ranging between 35 and 45km/h. It was an undeniably strong and consistent performance, putting power to the ground through a 3.09:1 rear axle ratio.

As anticipated though, the climb’s ongoing roadworks forced the truck to a stop a kilometre or so from the top. But just as
it did the day before at Mt Cotton, the FH Electric lifted off smoothly in 4th gear before shifting to 6th, then 8th, and almost seamlessly pulling back to 6th gear for the famously cruel lip at the top of the long climb.

The hard haul had, however, extracted plenty of energy and at a turnaround point a few kilometres further on, there was no shortage of nervous energy in the cab with the dash readout showing 40 per cent battery power remaining and more worryingly, driving range of just 48km. Wacol suddenly seemed a very long way off.

On the inside. From the driver’s seat, the electric truck dash layout has many differences compared to diesel versions. It is simply simpler.

Obviously, a lot was riding on gaining a battery top-up from the regenerative braking system on the downhill run. First setting the amazingly effective speed control system at 30km/h for the drop over the lip and then gradually increasing the speed level up to 40km/h, it was a genuine relief to see battery charge steadily improve and along with it, a significant increase in potential driving range. Indeed, back at Aratula, battery charge had improved to 50 per cent and critically, potential driving range to 92km.

From here, the 70km run back to Wacol was an easy stress- free stroll and with seemingly ample power still available, it was decided to increase cruise speed to a touch over 90km/h and as traffic flows increased, use the throttle rather than the adaptive cruise control system.

After a total trip of 193km, the end result was a truck and trailer silently rolling into Volvo’s logistics centre with 20 per cent battery charge still available and vitally, 50km of driving range up its sleeve.

So, was the exercise worthwhile or more objectively, successful?

Absolutely, for no more valid reason perhaps than demonstrating that even in this most elementary period in the evolution of battery electric heavy-duty trucks, there exists the potential to tackle tasks beyond basic perceptions.

Recharging at Mt Cotton. Again, it’s still very early days but potential and possibilities are perhaps greater than perceptions.

Again though, there’s a long way to go and much still to be achieved and evaluated – cost, recharging infrastructure, battery life and market acceptance, just for starters – before the technology starts to careen into commercial conscience.

Be in no doubt though, the journey has started and there will be no turning back.

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