Feature: Gas is go for Volvo trucks

17 January 2018

These are interesting times for the transport sector when it comes to what is – and will be – the ‘fuel’ of choice for operators. It may have taken a while, but the electric vehicle phenomenon that has hit the passenger car industry is beginning to cross over to the HGV sector. Tesla has introduced details of its battery powered semi-truck and Fuso has debuted the eCanter – the world’s first series production fully electric truck.

With these battery-based developments, it’s easy to think that electric power is the only alternative to the tried and tested diesel for trucks. However, that’s not quite the case, as has been evidenced in a few product introductions in recent months proposing gas as a credible option. Scania has been talking up CNG (compressed natural gas) for some time and the first vehicles with new specially designed gas-fed powertrains went into service in November. Meanwhile Iveco has also released details of its CNG and LNG (liquefied natural gas) vehicles, with a lot of demand expected, given the growing demand for gas.

More recently there is Volvo Trucks, which has invested a lot of resources into LNG power and firmly believes it to be a route to significant reductions in CO2 emissions from heavy trucks. With its new, gas-powered FH and FM LNG variants, the Swedish believe that not only will CO2 be reduced, but that the same level of performance will be retained. Volvo states that LNG can be a viable alternative to diesel and – in light of reported incoming legislation calling for further reductions to emissions from vehicles – potentially save operators when it comes to overall running costs. Having researched European prices for diesel and the LNG diesel equivalent price, Volvo believe that there is the opportunity to make savings of up to 40%.

“Many of our customers and their customers already work hard to reduce their environmental footprint. This regulation will drive the development of lower emissions, where we see a clear possibility for increasing LNG market shares as a vital part of the solution,” believes Lars Mårtensson, director of environment and innovation at Volvo Trucks. “Our vision is that trucks from Volvo will eventually have zero emissions, although the way of achieving that is not by one single solution, but rather through several solutions in parallel.”

Volvo is certainly no stranger when it comes to alternative fuels. Ten years ago, the Swedish manufacturer demonstrated seven trucks that ran on seven different fuel sources. Many of these innovations did not come to large-scale production, but the company believes that now the time is right for LNG to realise its potential. While it is still classed as a fossil fuel, LNG can produce 20% less CO2 emissions than diesel (tank-to-wheel) and, if biogas is used instead, the reduction could be as much as 100%. In addition, 1kg of LNG has the same energy of 1.39 litres of diesel, meaning less fuel overall could be used on a journey.

In Europe, nearly 80% of goods are transported by road and over 70% of those journeys use long-haul or regional transport. As a result, Volvo sees a major opportunity to take LNG vehicles from the city and urban environments, where they have typically operated, to rural surroundings. There are already 3,000 LNG-powered trucks in Europe – a figure that has doubled in the last three years. Further afield there are 100,000 such vehicles in China, while the US has 5-10,000 units in operation. The trend is set to continue, given the search for alternatives to diesel; the potential cost savings; and reduction in emissions.

In terms of infrastructure, it is very much work in progress, but things are moving quickly. Manufacturers are working with suppliers to enable a routes to be established that would link the UK and Portugal, with filling stations in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain, for example. Other countries with established – or planned – fuel stations include Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Finland and Germany.

Volvo claims that an operator who covers 120,000km (75,000 miles) and chooses natural gas for fuel will emit 18-20 million tonnes less CO2. Making the case for natural gas, the manufacturer states: “Bearing in mind that last year alone more than 264,000 heavy trucks were registered in the EU, there is immense potential for significantly reducing emissions globally from heavy commercial traffic. There is excellent availability of natural gas, it is competitively priced in many countries, and LNG infrastructure is currently being expanded throughout Europe in accordance with the European Commission and member states’ action package for securing Europe’s long-term energy supply.”

For drivers, Volvo has aimed to make things as straightforward as possible with the new LNG models. The refuelling process is described as ‘different, but simple’ and cleaner because there is no grease. From start to finish (including putting on and taking off safety clothing) it takes between five and 10 minutes, using equipment that is universal throughout countries and filling stations. There will be three types of refuelling possible with the Volvos: stationary, via a traditional fuel filling station; moveable, a smaller unit that can be situated on different parts of the company’s premises or elsewhere; and mobile, a tanker with filling station at the rear. In the event of a driver running out of fuel, there is a 50bhp diesel engine on-board, which enables drivers to reach safety or somewhere to refuel.

The performance curves for LNG models versus diesel are similar, with marginally lower torque at lower rpm (800-1,000) for the gas models, which then have slightly higher figures between 1,900 and 2,000rpm. It’s a similar situation for power output, the peak 460bhp in the range-topping diesel version coming at 1,300rpm and 1,800rpm in the gas unit.

Volvo insists that the FH and FM LNG models mark just the beginning of its journey into gas-powered regional and long-haul trucking. The two models use a number of advanced technologies such as the emergency braking technology VEB+ and I-See, the company’s predictive cruise control system. Production begins at the start of 2018 and Europe is the initial target market for sales.