Volvo VNR Electric semi truck first drive: More than just a truck

Volvo's EV semi is part of the Lights program, a massive public-private effort to create an entire electrified ecosystem in Southern California.

You probably won't be able to get this look from the dealership, sadly.
Andrew Krok/Roadshow

If you want to sell an electric truck, you're going to need more than just the truck itself.

Electrification has the potential to bring some big benefits to society, and not merely through the adoption of electric cars. So much of our existence is propped up on the backs of trucks that criss-cross the country, delivering goods like food, medicine -- pretty much everything you consume was likely moved on a truck.

Now, think about those trucks for a second. They're big. They're slow. They're loud. They shoot plumes of diesel fumes into the sky. So long as the technology is there, this is a great place to start cleaning up roadways, neighborhoods and whole cities through electric powertrains.

But an electric truck by itself isn't very useful. We need an entire ecosystem of moving parts to support this move, and Volvo thinks it has the best way to make everything happen: the Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions program, or Lights.

VNR Electric: The cornerstone of the plan

Aside from one crazy vinyl wrap, the Volvo Trucks VNR Electric doesn't look all that different from a standard semi cab, and that's by design. By maintaining the standard VNR shape, Volvo is able to integrate production of this new truck on the same lines as before.

Even the VNR Electric's packaging takes this into account. The power electronics live in a giant box where the diesel engine would be, while batteries take the place of the fuel tanks. The electric motors live in the middle of the frame, hooking up to the driveshafts that send the power rearward. The interior is largely the same as a standard VNR, too, its dashboard replete with buttons and knobs, the only hint about its EV underpinnings being a gauge cluster with charge and power meters in place of a fuel gauge and tachometer.

Climbing (literally) into the driver's seat, I find it's eerie to hear absolutely nothing when the truck is on. The air brakes release their grip with a push of a big yellow button, and it's time to set off. The VNR Electric doesn't have a creep mode, so a light push of the throttle sends the truck off -- not silently, but with a noise level somewhere between an electric passenger car and a Formula E race car. The electric torque makes for an easy departure, seeing as how there's no manual or automated manual transmissions playing with clutches and switching gears every three seconds.

Despite rolling in a cab without a box behind it, the VNR Electric feels pretty smooth. The bumps on the road course at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, don't bother me much as I take hold of the gargantuan steering wheel and give it the ol' what-for around some cones. I can see everything from my seat, making it pretty easy to nail corners with precision.

Plug and chug (electrons).

Volvo Trucks

On the back straight, I put my foot to the floor. It isn't a violent motion, but the VNR Electric definitely exhibits some get-up-and-go when prompted. A three-stage regenerative braking system captures some extra energy on deceleration, but disc brakes behind the truck's wheels will bring the whole thing to a halt in surprisingly little time, if necessary.

In the cabin, the electric motors make barely any racket, leaving a bit of space for things like power-steering pumps and other parts that a diesel engine would otherwise drown out. It's not Audi A8-quiet, but after talking to truckers at the event, I found they were all impressed with how hushed the cabin was. Overall, the truck drivers and journalists I talked to at the event are excited for the VNR Electric's potential benefits.

Volvo hasn't laid out too many specifications for the VNR Electric just yet. Sales aren't going to start in earnest until later this year, so Volvo Trucks is in no rush to deliver range figures or anything like that. What I do know is that the preproduction VNR Electric is running routes between 75 and 175 miles, with a gross vehicle weight of 66,000 pounds.

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Turn the Lights on

So, that covers the truck. But what about when it comes time to charge, or when these things need service? It's not like there's a parade of EV truck mechanics waiting in the wings, nor is it suggested that VNR Electrics start jamming up public parking lots to grab some juice. That's where Volvo Lights comes in.

Lights is a public-private partnership that includes money from California's cap-and-trade program, in addition to investments from all the parties involved. The goal is to create an entire electrified ecosystem that incorporates charging, education, service and other factors to reduce emissions in and around California's Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles. The program extends from the Port of Long Beach inward, covering drayage runs between the port and various nearby warehouses.

To charge all these trucks, the Volvo Lights program is working to install publicly available fast chargers for the VNR Electric, in addition to installing chargers at dealerships and ports. It's an arduous 12-step process to get a charger in place, and companies need to work closely with grid operators to ensure that demands can be met at specific times. Multiply that by the number of places chargers should be, and you can see why this is such a big undertaking. The 50-kilowatt chargers are the bread and butter, but supplier ABB can build fast chargers providing up to 600 kW of energy, adding more than 75 miles of range per hour. A more normal charge rate sees about 25 miles of range entering the battery each hour.

Once the wrap is off, the VNR Electric will look like any other VNR on the road, with just a few small tweaks.

Volvo Trucks

When it comes to sales, it's obviously on dealerships to make sure their staff are trained and knowledgeable on the latest EV truck tech. More importantly, the salespeople need to sit down and crunch figures with owners and operators to see if an electric truck can fit into a person's schedule -- for some drivers, it's still not a feasible shift, and the Volvo Lights program is really only focused on local drayage. Long-haul electric trucking is a goal, albeit one that's further off.

It'll also be important to ensure these trucks can be serviced. Training is the hardest part here, which is why Volvo Lights' partners include Rio Hondo College and San Bernardino Valley College, both of which are establishing certification programs for EV truck techs. These jobs will be in high demand in the years to come, and there's some good money to be made here for those willing to learn about new technologies. Just remember: Electricity is no joke.

What's left?

Volvo Lights is limited to Southern California for now, but its benefits can be seen and applied just about everywhere. Think about islands like Hawaii or Guam -- electric trucks could ignore the high-cost diesel that needs to be shipped out there, and an entire microgrid based on solar and wind sources could provide a whole lot of emissions-free juice. Fuel costs aren't going to stay low forever, so it's best to figure out where these electric trucks can deliver the most benefits and make it happen.

Volvo's VNR Electric will be heading to interested parties later this year, but an electric truck by itself is less than half the battle. Thankfully, the Volvo Lights program has already proven that many companies will be willing to band together and create an entirely new way of powering logistics with an eye on improving the environment.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.