Volvo Trucks Enters Electrification’s Next Phase

With electric trucks already available, the OEM focuses on refining service and maintenance, expanding EV-certified dealerships and scaling production.

In North America, nearly half of all heavy electric trucks registered in 2022 reportedly were Volvo trucks. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

There were plenty of flashy news announcements about new trucks and future mobility technologies at the 2023 ACT Expo in Anaheim, California. Then there was Volvo Trucks.

Volvo Trucks is currently taking reservations for hub-to-hub autonomous transport on its first lanes in Texas – from Dallas-Fort Worth to El Paso and Dallas to Houston. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

Volvo’s news at the show was not the stuff of newspaper front pages. Instead, Volvo Trucks announced updates to its EV-certified dealer network and a new “white glove” service option for North America. Even the trucks on display were there to attract attention and not to showcase any new technology. But that’s exactly where the company wants to be right now.

Fredrik Klevenfeldt, director of marketing communications for VTNA. (Volvo Trucks)

“We have made so much news in the last few years, we needed to take the news and put it into operation,” said Fredrik Klevenfeldt, director of marketing communications for Volvo Trucks North America. “We cannot just bring news all the time. We need to make sure that what we have introduced is solidly working and accepted.”

Intelligent maintenance

Start with the new Volvo Blue “intelligent maintenance” offering for North America, a localized version of the three tiers of service contracts (Blue, Silver, Gold) that Volvo Trucks has for years offered in Europe. The North American market has not been all that receptive to bundled service deals, Klevenfeldt said, because customers traditionally have done maintenance and repairs at their own shops or with the help of a third party.

That attitude is changing with the shift to electric trucks and the reality that some fleets are having problems finding and keeping qualified mechanics — and making sure they have the correct tools, parts and equipment on hand. Every Volvo VNR Electric tractor sold in North America comes with a Volvo Gold plan, a more comprehensive, bumper-to-bumper contract that covers everything from the batteries to routine maintenance.

Volvo now is offering Blue contracts for its diesel trucks, which also are becoming more complicated and connected. “We’re looking at all the connectivity features that our trucks have,” Klevenfeldt said, calling them iPhones on wheels. “We wanted to provide our customers with service and maintenance solutions, which is white glove.”

Volvo Blue contracts are purchased for a set mileage, from 100,000 miles (160,934 km) to 600,000 miles (965,606 km) and can be bundled into the purchase price of the truck. When one of the 37 dealers in 15 states that have been certified for Volvo Blue (seven more locations will open later in 2023) performs maintenance on a covered vehicle, they will always run a 74-point inspection, including analyzing the oil to make sure it’s being changed appropriately. This is supplemented by remote diagnostics that can, in some situations, identify upcoming issues and suggest that the truck comes into the shop before something goes wrong. Volvo monitors its connected trucks 24/7 from its North American headquarters in Greensboro, NC.

Volvo Trucks will start producing trucks with its rear e-axle “in a few years” for customers covering longer routes. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

Based on its Blue contracts in Europe, Volvo Trucks now has an understanding of how long some components will reasonably last. This knowledge, combined with constant sensor readings, allows certified service contract operators to proactively schedule an inspection for a time when the shop will have the personnel, parts and space to service the truck.

“Planned or scheduled stops are fine for a customer. They can work with that,” Klevenfeldt said. “But the worst thing that can happen is when you have a breakdown that’s not planned, and then the whole transportation chain gets disrupted.”

Certified EV dealer expansion

Last year, Volvo had 18 EV-certified dealerships in North America. This year, the number has grown to 36 locations in 19 states, with an additional 56 locations on the road to certification. The steps required to become an EV-certified dealer started to be formulated during Volvo LIGHTS, a $91-million public-private project that tested all-electric tractor-trailers in Southern California between 2019 and 2022. Volvo LIGHTS — which stands for Low Impact Green Heavy-Transport Solutions — taught the company what sort of training certified mechanics would need and which parts they should have on hand.

Even employees who don’t directly work on the vehicles need to understand what’s different about EVs, Klevenfeldt said. “They need to understand what it means to have electric trucks with high voltage in the area,” he said. “What do I do? What don’t I do? There is also sales training because selling an electric truck is very different from selling a diesel truck.”

When an EV-certified dealer starts talking electric trucks with a customer, one of the first things they do is understand how the customer intends to run the trucks, the applications and the routes.

“We do a route analysis to understand if it’s feasible,” he said. “Can they actually run an electric truck properly today? Or do they need to wait? We have said ‘no’ to some customers.”

In order to say “yes,” Volvo brings in validated infrastructure partners to explain heavy-duty charging cycles. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) calculations, including discussions of available grants and incentives, are also vital to getting electric trucks to work for fleets.

The OEM plans to begin customer testing of fuel-cell trucks in Northern Europe in 2025. (SAE/Sebastian Blanco)

“I think customers are often overwhelmed,” Klevenfeldt said. “So, basically, we hold the customer’s hand throughout the whole process. The customer knows and feels that we take care of things from the first discussion.”

Klevenfeldt said it’s not vital for all 440 of Volvo Trucks’ “touch points” (storefronts and dealerships) in North America to be EV-certified this year. That’s the long-term plan, but for now, investing the time and money only makes sense where the trucks are going to be used, which is happening in more and more places.

“There is a pull,” he said. “We have not had to force any dealers to do this. Some have customers coming in saying they want to sign up for electric trucks. Other dealers want to be prepared. It’s their brand, and they want to say, ‘We are a forward-thinking dealership that’s ready to help our customers move on to the next move into electromobility.’”

Up next, hydrogen ICE powertrains?

The two trucks Volvo displayed at its booth at the ACT Expo – one electric, one autonomous – were there to represent the spectrum what Volvo offers, but they’ve both been seen before. Same with the hydrogen fuel-cell stack and e-axle on display.

Volvo has set a global target that at least half of all the trucks it sells in 2030 will be battery- or fuel-cell electric, which leaves plenty of diesel ICE trucks in the mix. Volvo also is investigating the new-old technology of burning hydrogen in an internal-combustion engine. Lots of testing still needs to be done, Klevenfeldt said, but hydrogen ICE might be the right solution in some areas.

“The maturity of the market is rather diverse when it comes to how much customers can invest in technology,” he said. “[Hydrogen ICE] is kind of just to make sure that we have a solution which can fit the local or regional needs, where this might actually be a viable solution. It’s a new step that we are taking rather seriously.”