Volvo LIGHTS Is A Big Dream Wrapped Up In, For Now, Five Electric Trucks

At first, it can be a challenge to wrap your head around just what Volvo LIGHTS is. This isn’t helped by the fact that Volvo Trucks North America, the company leading the LIGHTS project, talks about it in different ways. First, as the capital letters suggest, there is an official acronym: Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions. Second, some of the promotional materials from Volvo Trucks say simply that “LIGHTS will bring battery electric freight trucks to Southern California.” Third, there’s the way that the president of Volvo Trucks North America, Peter Voorhoeve, talks about the project.

“For me, LIGHTS is showcasing how electric vehicles work,” he told me during a recent LIGHTS showcase in Fontana, California. “Obviously, we are going to sell electric vehicles. There is no doubt about it. LIGHTS is a fantastic enabler and broadens the objectives a little bit.”

However you describe it, the gist is that LIGHTS is how Volvo Trucks will introduce plug-in Class 8 trucks to its operations in North America.

It all starts with five vehicles that will operate in and around Los Angeles. These are the first of 23 electric VNR tractors that will make up the Class 8 portion of the LIGHTS project. Throughout 2020, LIGHTS will grow to include 29 other battery electric vehicles (think fork lifts and smaller work trucks), 58 public and private EV chargers, two electric truck service centers and two colleges with electric truck maintenance programs.

The reason for the LIGHTS project is to operate cleaner vehicles in a place known for dirty air. Volvo Trucks has experience using big electric vehicles around the world, whether its an all-electric city bus moving passengers or the Volvo FL Electric and Volvo FE Electric delivery trucks that are already in use in Europe. LIGHTS is the company’s first big attempt to get electric trucks operating in the States as well.

The first five VNR Electrics will be used in the greater Los Angeles area by NFI Transportation and Dependable Supply Chain Services. Volvo worked with these two delivery companies to develop the routes that the EVs will take, since the drivers and the fleet managers need to think differently when operating the electric vehicles. For example, while no one will say exactly how many miles one of these electrified VNRs is able to go on a full charge, the trucks used during the early stage of the LIGHTS project will run routes that are between 75 and 175 miles long.

Part of the LIGHTS project is to figure out where to install DC fast chargers for the VNRs. Only through real-world testing and further development of the powertrain set-up will Volvo Trucks define and then reveal things like the range and charge times for the VNR Electric trucks. The trucks can be outfitted with either four or six 66-kWh battery packs, of which 50 kWh are usable energy in each pack, giving a total of either 200 or 300 kWh total usable energy in a VNR Electric. The batteries, the 260-kW continuous power motors and the two-speed transmissions used in the VNR Electric trucks are the same as those uses in the European FL and FE EVs, as well as in Volvo’s electric buses.

Volvo Trucks representatives made clear during the event in Fontana that this wasn’t the actual launch of LIGHTS, but more of a showcase. The project will officially be launched later this year, and that’s when the company will be talking about details like official range estimates, cost and when it will start taking orders.

There’s another way that Voorhoeve described LIGHTS, this time as the “perfect” public private partnership to encourage vehicle electrification. Aside from the two delivery companies mentioned above, Volvo is working with 12 other agencies, companies or organizations, including the Southern California Edison utility, Greenlots and California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District. SCAQMD and Volvo Trucks received a $44.8-million grant from the California Air Resources Board for the LIGHTS project. Volvo Trucks itself is investing another $36.7 million in LIGHTS.

Volvo Trucks is running the LIGHTS project in 2020 so that its partners and customers can order VNR Electric trucks for themselves to put into service in 2021 and beyond. That’s why Voorhoeve brought up yet another way to look at what LIGHTS is or, more specifically, what it might be considered once it has served its purpose this year and made electric semi-trucks a regular sight on American highways. To that end, Volvo has already started to learn how to build electric VNRs for customers at its New River Valley assembly plant in Dublin, Virginia, and will ramp up that production at the LIGHTS project delivers results.

“Our commercial objective is to bring electric vehicles to the market in a profitable way,” Voorhoeve said. “However, I also hope with LIGHTS we reach a broader audience to show that we as an OEM are very serious about sustainability and that we will do whatever we can, R&D-wise and time-wise to bring a good solution to market. LIGHTS for me would be a success if people say in two years that, ‘You know, that LIGHTS thing in California? That made us shift.'”

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