Is the future of trucking electric? We drove the VNR Electric to find out.

Trucking is vital to keeping the country running smoothly. From the tanker truck pulling into the gas station to refill the fuel storage tanks as another truck arrives to restock the refrigerated cases with your favorite beverages, to the moving truck delivering your belongings to your new home and the big box store truck dropping off a fresh supply of merchandise–72 percent of the goods we consume are supplied by a truck.

With how many millions of miles trucks travel across the country annually, though, there’s the issue of diesel fuel particles adding to overall air pollution. According to the Clean Air Task Force, the worst diesel pollution in the U.S. is in Los Angeles along Interstate 5 at 0.726 micrograms per cubic meter. Logistics companies have been looking for greener solutions to mitigate their contributions, with hydrogen and battery electric power hitting the road over the past few years. 

One company, Golden State Foods of Irvine, California, has found a solution for its Quality Custom Distribution (QCD) division with Volvo Trucks North America’s first-ever Class 8 EV, the VNR Electric.

“You gotta look at a lot of factors when jumping into [fleet electrification], but first and foremost [are] our sustainability goals,” said QCD Group Vice President of Operations, Shane Blanchette. “Our goal is net zero emissions by 2050 […] the sooner you start, the better in terms of learning and making the transition […] Volvo brought us this opportunity; we’re a good use case, given our operating model. We tried out the first [VNR Electric], really liked it. It made sense to continue down this path to learn more and grow this side of our fleet.”

QCD adopted the Volvo VNR Electric in April of 2021, ordering 14 day-cab units with funding support via a grant awarded to Volvo Financial Services from the California-based Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee. This was followed in 2022 with the addition of 30 more VNR Electrics joining the more than 700 QCD trucks on “last-mile” deliveries to restaurant locations in Southern California.

“The drivers really like [the VNR Electric],” said Blanchette. “We weren’t really sure how they would be impacted, but they like the smooth ride. They’re definitely quieter […] In terms of the maintenance, that was in line with expectations: we expected it to be a lot lower. The only piece that we are seeing is on the drive tires. They do tend to wear out a little bit quicker, given the weight of the vehicle.”

The future of trucking begins in Virginia’s New River Valley

Southwest Virginia is the home of Volvo Trucks North America. Located in Dublin, Virginia, the 1.6-million sq.-ft. facility builds every Volvo truck sold in North America, including the VNR Electric. PopSci was the first to visit the facility since it closed the facility to the public in 2020 during the pandemic. For this visit, we got a glimpse at the potential future of trucking with the company’s first Class 8 EV.

L: A Volvo VNR electric frame receives its electric motor and transmission. R: Inside the Volvo Trucks North America Dublin plant. Images: Volvo Trucks North America

“Sustainability is at the forefront of every decision that Volvo Trucks makes,” said Volvo Trucks Public Relations Manager, Kyle Zimmerman. “Volvo Trucks sees Battery Electric as one critical path towards decarbonizing transportation […] We remain committed to the three-pillar strategy of BEV, FCEV, and ICE all working together to decarbonize transportation across different duty cycles and applications”

Volvo Trucks North America announced the VNR Electric in December 2018. It debuted alongside the Volvo LIGHTS Project, a “public private partnership to gain understanding of what it would take to commercialize Class 8 BEVs,” according to Zimmerman. The first VNR Electric rolled out of Dublin in 2020, with over 270 examples in both box (a cargo box mounted directly onto the frame) and fifth-wheel (a hub on the frame where a trailer connects to the truck) configurations performing local and regional haulage to-date. And there’s more to come from the New River Valley, including hydrogen-powered Class 8s.

“In addition to Battery Electric,” said Zimmerman, “we see that Fuel Cell (with Hydrogen) is another path which will be more suited for the long-haul application, heavy duty haul and in areas where electrical infrastructure won’t be available for some time. We also see a prolonged future for the Internal Combustion Engine, running on fossil free and renewable fuels such as HVO, renewable diesel and hydrogen.”

A first time for everything

The highlight of my visit to the Volvo Trucks North America plant in western Virginia was driving a VNR Electric along the plant’s test track. Originally a mile in length, the track was recently expanded to three miles to give customers a better idea of what their chosen truck model can do on the open road in a safe setting.

The only times I’ve ever driven a truck was through SCS Software’s “American Truck Simulator,” which has the current Volvo VNL in its lineup, though the Czech-based company plans to introduce both electric trailers and trucks into “ATS” and “Euro Truck Simulator 2” over time. 

So, how does a Volvo VNR Electric drive? My tester was an older VNR Electric box truck with 20,000 pounds of rocks loaded into the box behind the day cab to give the driver a better idea of what this machine would be like to drive with a full load on the open road. Starting the truck takes a couple more steps than just turning the key, but what you won’t hear is the usual clatter and purr of a diesel engine. Instead, the only sound to come out of the truck was that of the parking air brake at the start and end of my run.

The VNR Electric rode over the various sections of the test track like a champ, smoothly and comfortably rolling along the track. The regenerative braking really brought the EV big rig to a crawl at times, too. What I wanted to know was what would happen if I just smashed the accelerator pedal into the floor. After all, EVs are known for their instantaneous torque, especially when the (not-so) loud pedal is stomped on, driving all of the electric power into everyone’s tummies.

This truck, on the other hand… didn’t do that. With the pedal slammed down on the floor, the VNR Electric gently rolled off down the straightest portion of the test track, eventually quickly picking up speed like other EVs. As Ken explained, the VNR Electric is more of a tool than an everyday EV, one built for delivering goods over driving excitement. Then again, more than a few drivers–like those at Golden State Foods–are excited to have this Class 8 EV in the fleet for all that it offers to them: a quiet, smooth ride from the distribution hub to the supermarket.

The future has yet to be built

If there is one thing that’s holding back more Class 8 truck builders from joining Volvo Trucks North America on its electrification journey, especially when it comes to long-haul trucking, it’s a two-fold problem: infrastructure and batteries.

“Batteries are heavy so there is a limited amount of batteries which can be put on a truck and still make it commercially viable from a payload perspective,” said Zimmerman. “This range will likely extend with future advances in battery technology. Additionally, there are still many hurdles to overcome with charging infrastructure. The grid is challenged to supply electricity in the quantities needed by fleets deploying Class 8 BEVs and that too plays a role in keeping the Class 8 BEV solutions more suited to the regional haul at this time.”

QCD driver charges the VNR Electric. Image: Volvo Trucks North America

Still, there is plenty of excitement for this particular Swedish-American electric big rig, especially for QCD and other “last-mile” operators.

“For the Southern California market, we have the ability to convert the entire fleet to electric,” said Blanchette. “A big cost-saver is on the fuel side. Depending on what you pay for electricity in a particular market versus diesel fuel, most often than not you’re gonna realize savings in that area. That’s what we have seen to-date, and it has enlightened our expectations.”