Volvo sees electric future in city transport

By Davide Ghilotti
Published: Friday, 08 September 2017

The Swedish automaker’s 7900 electric bus is due to hit the UK roads next year, as London and other European capitals strive to rein in pollution and improve city landscapes. Amid targets to improve air quality, Volvo is banking on electro-mobility to drive new business.

As major cities seek to curb air pollution and improve the viability of their transport systems, public transport is unmistakably heading towards electro-mobility, and buses are at the forefront of the upgrade.

France and the UK both announced in recent weeks that sales of combustion engine vehicles (ICEs) – your average petrol or diesel car – will be banned by 2040.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has made reducing the UK capital’s high levels of air pollution a top priority of his term in office. Many European capitals are facing similar problems, and are working on their own strategies.

Swedish carmaker Volvo has been capitalising both on this gradual shift and, to an extent, taken the lead in setting new targets for its industry, when it announced it would phase out ICEs by 2019.

From then on, all new models launched by the carmaker will be partially (hybrid) or completely electric.

According to Edward Jobson, chief engineer at Volvo Bus Corporation (also known as Volvo Buses), the focus on electric from governments and city councils is good news for automakers: "[It’s all] very positive," he told IM.

Aside from the rhetoric and media hype, the electric discourse in public transport has already had a positive effect on demand for hybrid and electric buses, he said: "We see that the volumes are picking up in many markets in Europe and there is also a strong focus on electro-mobility in North and Latin America and China."

Currently, Volvo has three city buses in its portfolio for the European market, including a plug-in or electric hybrid, which can drive electrically and have a combustion engine, and a fully-electric model.

The carmaker has been investing in electro-mobility since 2005, with the first hybrid launched in 2009, Jobson told IM. It has not manufactured any diesel city buses since January 2014, offering only hybrids or electric.

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Volvo’s 7900 electric bus will reach the UK next year.   

Volvo 7900

Its flagship model, the updated Volvo 7900 fully-electric bus, now operates in Sweden and Luxembourg, and will be launched in Harrogate, northern England, next year.

The 7900 has a pack of four lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, which sit on the roof of the vehicle and are charged at end terminals or along the bus route. Charging takes between three and six minutes, allowing for about half an hour of driving range before another charge is needed.

According to Volvo, the model consumes up to 80% less energy than a diesel bus. Also appealingly to authorities in large polluted cities, generation of Co2, nitrogen oxides (NOx) or particulates is slashed.

The driving range of the 7900 was intended to cover the distance of an average bus route within a large city landscape.

"The Volvo 7900 Electric is very suitable for city traffic on distances of 10-15 km," Jobson said to IM. "It can handle long operational hours since it fast charges at end stops in just a few minutes, and then continues to operate. It fits well in city centres, being so quiet. Most city routes in Europe are about 10 km: this model is optimised for these conditions."

While 15km on a full charge may sound very low compared with the hundreds that electric cars can travel before in need of recharge, the size, weight and driving requirements of buses drastically reduces their range. Battery banks are also very heavy, so manufacturers need to find a compromise between extending the range while containing overall weight. 

"It depends on the version of bus and the type of traffic," Jobson said on the state of technological advancement in relation to driving range on a full charge for electric buses. "As the batteries become better, we will make this range longer."

Improvement in battery storage has been one of the main drivers for the electrification of the automotive sector. For buses, whose weight can exceed that of an average car by up to seven times, battery performance is equally fundamental.

With the improved availability of lithium-ion batteries, producers had a much higher energy storage potential at their disposal.

"This opened up standards we were not used to before," Jobson said. "When you look to the future, we see battery development will continue and it will impact the range and price of new vehicles. As the prices go down, the competitiveness will increase.

"It will not take long until you will have to justify why you will not go electric," he added.

Futurism – rethinking city space

Although it is still early days for the electrification of transport systems of many cities, Volvo reckons that a point of no return has already been crossed. Authorities are clear about how they want public transport to evolve, and automakers need to adjust to be best positioned to benefit from the trend.

Ulf Magnusson, senior vice president for business in Europe at Volvo Group, recently said in a statement: "We believe electric bus systems are the future of urban public transport, as environmentally clean and comfortable as a tram or light rail, but at a fraction of the overall cost. As major cities look to improve air quality, reduce noise and future-proof its public transport, electric bus systems have great potential to be part of the solution."

The implications of a fully-electric bus system in large cities can be wide-reaching.

Reduced emissions and noise levels on the one hand, coupled with further advances in vehicles’ autonomy, could open up new options for city planning such as indoor bus stops, or bus stops placed within residential or commercial buildings: in cinemas, shopping centres or office blocks.

"This opens up new possibilities for city planning," Magnusson said.