The future of truck transportation is already happening in Southwest Virginia
by Randy Walker, Cardinal News
You may have seen them if you’ve been in Southwest Virginia anytime recently. Pulling 53- foot-long trailers, and standing over 13 feet tall, they are hard to miss.
But you may not have heard them, because they move very quietly. They are battery-electric trucks, forerunners of an electrified future, and they are already running daily routes in the area. Some are new, some have been repurposed; Patrick Collignon of Dublin, Va., knows about all of them.
At an age when most people are thinking about retirement, Collignon could have easily chosen to ride out the rest of his career like a long-distance trucker nearing the terminal. Instead, he stepped down from a major commercial automotive giant and turned the ignition switch of his start-up.
He says his destination is the future. The name of his start-up, Trova Commercial Vehicles (Trova CV), comes from the Biblical admonition, “seek and you will find.” In Latin, “trova” means “find,” says Collignon. “ … we left the seeking behind and we went immediately for ‘we will find.’”
What Collignon hopes to find is a solution, at least in part, to a giant challenge facing the trucking industry and society in general. And he wants to do it by taking heavy diesel trucks off the roads and converting them to electric.
In a building not far from Trova’s design studio, two Class 8 trucks (gross vehicle weight rating over 33,000 pounds) sit side by side. Seemingly new, with gleaming green paint, they are in fact a repurposed 2016 Volvo and 2009 Mack. The Mack is waiting for its electric drivetrain. The Volvo has already mostly completed its transformation, as witnessed by a trace of road dirt on the body and tires.
With a little imagination, one can almost smell the exhaust and hear the roar of the diesel. Except there’s nothing to smell and very little to hear. These trucks are powered by rechargeable Panasonic 18650 lithium-ion batteries.
Not far away in Wytheville, Va., Camrett Logistics is one of several companies already using electric trucks in the region. Camrett provides third-party warehousing and distribution services for clients including the Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin.
Camrett has a two-way relationship with Volvo. The company bought a 2022 VNR electric truck from Volvo that went into service in July. It shuttles parts from the Camrett warehouses in Dublin and Fairlawn to the Volvo plant.
“This is a near-perfect scenario to test the electric trucks,” says Collin Peel, founder and CEO of Camrett. “The current truck is running probably a 10-mile loop, so if something were to ever happen, it’s only 10 miles from the shop. And it’s working very well. We have it running roughly 20 hours a day. It receives a charge in the middle afternoon, then a 90-minute charge late at night.”
Volvo VNR Electrics are available as straight trucks, in which all axles are attached to a single frame, or as tractors that pull trailers. The VNR 6×4 — meaning it has six wheels on three axles, and the four rear wheels receive power — can run up to 275 miles on a charge, according to Volvo’s website.
“This is just a good time to prototype because we see electrification coming over the next five years,” Peel says.
According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, more fast electric vehicle chargers will soon be implemented along major Virginia traffic arteries. VDOT has already been approved for more than $38 million to do this over the next two years.
INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE
Volvo, which currently has 11% of the U.S. truck market sells new electric trucks through dealers. Prices vary according to the service contract and the configuration of the truck.
New Class 8 (heavy) electric trucks typically sell for around $300,000, according to online sources. This is currently about twice the price of their fuel-powered counterparts.
“This is just a good time to prototype because we see electrification coming over the next five years.” — Collin Peel
But in addition to studying the economics, Peel wants to find out how they handle winter weather, and how they deal with hills.
“Drivers like the trucks,” Peel says. “They just say they’re smooth, they don’t have to change gears. It’s got all the ability to pull. Sometimes you’re pulling 48,000 pounds, sometimes you’re pulling 15,000 pounds. They have no drag. The truck competes very well with a diesel truck.”
Becky Fields, one of Camrett’s drivers, gave the Volvo VNR Electric high marks for a quiet, smooth ride, and the heated seat with a back massager. “It’s already got me spoiled,” she says.
Camrett Logistics and another Volvo logistics partner, Watsontown Trucking Company, ordered their first Volvo VNR Electric trucks in 2021. Nacarato Truck Center in Troutville provides maintenance and support.
DRIVING THE INDUSTRY
In September, Volvo and public and private partners in Southern California concluded a three-year pilot study called Volvo LIGHTS. The goal was to identify challenges and lay the foundation of the successful commercialization of battery-electric trucking. Objectives included identification of ideal routes for electrification, strengthening dealer support, building charging infrastructure, training technicians, and raising awareness among first responders about the high-voltage elements on the VNR Electric.
“Zero emission trucks work – as this project shows – and we need strong rules, in many states and federally, promoting them,” Craig Segall, California Air Resources Board (CARB) deputy executive officer for mobile sources and incentives, says.
“This project shows that this technology can serve business and deliver protections that will benefit the health of our communities that need it the most.”
“Ultimately, all these [electric] trucks need to be built. And they will be built here,” Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America, says in accordance. “In 2019 we started a $400 million dollar investment project that we are now executing. Dublin, Va., is now in the heart of building very innovative trucks.” The number of electric trucks coming off the assembly lines is in the hundreds per year, Voorhoeve adds.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
But until more new electric vehicles can be manufactured at lower prices, Collignon — who left Volvo in 2019 to start Trova — says repurposing is the way to go.
“Cost needs to go down, lead time needs to go down,” he says. “And on top of that, if you look at California, if they ever want to reach their targets — and they have very lofty targets – mathematically, you cannot reach it because the OEMs do not produce enough new zero-emission vehicles. For California to reach its targets by 2030, almost every OEM today would have to make 100% zero-emission vehicles. It’s not happening. Not even close. We strongly believe that repowering solutions like ours will be key.”
“We do this because I strongly believe we have a responsibility to our children, to our grandchildren, to hand over a better world.” — Peter Voorhoeve
Collignon says that as far back as 2017, he understood that the world was about to change. He says that as of right now, one way or another, there is a consensus among those in the automotive industry that by 2030, transportation will totally be redefined. Voorhoeve agrees and says the change for him is a personal mission.
Through a combination of improved combustion engines, fuel-cell electrics, and battery electrics, Volvo is aiming at a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2040 when it hopes to reach a goal of an emissions-free transport fleet.
This article comes from Cardinal News, cardinalnews.org., an online nonprofit news agency based in Southwest Virginia.