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Volvo’s Lars Stenqvist on the future of electric trucks, connectivity

 Volvo is testing an autonomous refuse vehicle in Sweden. CTO Lars Stenqvist says that people are hesitant about the technology until the company can demonstrate it.
Volvo is testing an autonomous refuse vehicle in Sweden. CTO Lars Stenqvist says that people are hesitant about the technology until the company can demonstrate it.

Truck maker’s CTO talks technology advances in wide-ranging roundtable discussion

No need for those extra extension cords just yet; electric vehicles are not about to take over the world. That is one of the points that Lars Stenqvist, CTO of the Volvo Group and EVP of Volvo Group Truck Technology, made to a select group of reporters during a roundtable discussion on truck technologies at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, on Monday.

“The death of the combustion engine is not today, not tomorrow, not 10 years from now because the combustion engine is the [workhorse of long-haul],” he said.

Stenqvist’s one-hour discussion, which included 25 minutes of Q&A, touched on a number of technology-related trends – including smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and connectivity. But it started with the diesel engine.

Noting that he likes to speak last at events so he “can tell everyone before me why they are wrong,” Stenqvist noted that diesel engines remain the domain of long-haul trucks and pointed to recent technologies such as Volvo’s Turbo Compounding and wave piston design that have improved fuel economy. Still, he acknowledges that like most companies, Volvo continues to invest in technology and is prepared to shift those resources as the market begins to define where it is going.

“What will the future look like?” he asked. “To be clear, I don’t know. But I have a good idea of the direction we are going … in the world. We need to take small steps and then industrialize [when the path is clear].”

The death of the combustion engine is not today, not tomorrow, not 10 years from now because the combustion engine is the [workhorse of long-haul].

— Lars Stenqvist, CTO, Volvo Trucks

One of the difficult parts of leading innovation, Stenqvist noted, was the reluctance to let go of the past. “The tough part right now in our industry is we have problems leaving well-known technologies behind,” he said. “That is why we are building new technologies on top of older ones.”

For example, Stenqvist noted the Volvo SuperTruck project, which resulted in the wave piston design that improved fuel consumption by 2% on vehicles. Volvo is also part of SuperTruck II, “and we are hoping it will be as successful as SuperTruck I,” he added.

On electric vehicles, Stenqvist pointed out that he isn’t against the vehicles, in fact, Volvo is among the leaders in electric and autonomous vehicle design. The company is testing an autonomous refuse truck in Sweden with recycling company Renova. The truck uses sensors to continuously monitor its path and stops immediately if an obstacle appears. The truck drives itself from one stop to the next and the driver can walk ahead of the vehicle to collect cans instead of climbing into and out of the cab hundreds of times a shift.

Volvo has also introduced autonomous trucks in mining operations, offers electric construction equipment, participated in last week’s Federal Highway Administration platooning test, and is one of the largest providers of electric and hybrid-electric buses in the world. The company is also conducting tests of an electric truck in California that uses a Siemens system and overhead catenary system to provide power. There is also an electric Mack Pinnacle tractor being tested in California.

Stenqvist said he believes electric power, just like autonomous vehicles, will grow in smaller areas and then expand from there. In trucking, medium-duty applications are likely to gravitate to electric first.

“We believe when it comes to medium duty and medium heavy-duty like refuse that it is a natural match,” he said, noting that regional operations with longer duty ranges have more interest hybrid solutions. “In most discussion, we see the interest in going electric in the last mile, the last leg.”

To that end, Volvo is working on creating a geofencing solution for vehicles that would allow a hybrid vehicle to automatically switch to electric power for its final miles or when within city limits, for instance.

“There is also interest in long haul,” Stenqvist added. “One solution we believe in is an electrified highway.” That could be through the Siemens system or other options in development.

McAllen, TX, is testing a charging pad system from Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification (WAVE) and Complete Coach Works (CCW). The pads are located at bus stops and charge the buses as they stop and wait for passengers to board. The city says the wireless charging systems, which include pads at designated locations that the buses stop above, will double the daily range of the buses.

Stamford researchers have tested a small-scale concept that would allow charging of vehicles in motion and other companies are working on ways to provide electric charging technology right in the roadbed.

“We are seeking solutions where we can get electricity from the highway in one way or another,” Stenqvist said.

One theme Stenqvist kept coming back to was connectivity – connectivity of vehicles, and connectivity of society.

“For sure, the future is more uncertain than ever,” he said. “But we are convinced we are part of a value chain to drive prosperity around the globe.”

With some 600,000 connected vehicles around the globe (200,000 in the U.S.), Volvo is collecting millions of data points. That information is being used to improve vehicle uptime and proactively monitor for potential problems.

But connectivity goes beyond just Volvo trucks, Stenqvist noted. It includes bringing together other vehicles, environment (like roadways), cities, shippers and end customers to name a few. This connectivity also leads into autonomous vehicles, something that Svenqvist sees coming, but again in limited doses early on.

“I would not be surprised to see highways with three or four lanes and then a separation and a lane for autonomous vehicles,” he said.

However, autonomous vehicles face public and legislative concerns. Svenqvist noted that people are hesitant about autonomous refuse trucks until Volvo is able to show them how its vision of the truck works.

“I think it would be very beneficial if we can get legislation that covers all vehicles because we will be one transport sector,” he said, adding that “we will never accept autonomous vehicles with less safety.”

Autonomous vehicles’ time will come, though. “Gradually you will see autonomous/semi-autonomous vehicles in confined areas,” he said. “Before you see fully autonomous vehicles in downtown areas, we will be so far down the road, it will be years because the environment is [so unpredictable].”

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.