Driver Becky Fields with Camrett's Volvo VNR Electric.
Driver Becky Fields with Camrett's Volvo VNR Electric. Camrett photo.

If you are out and about in Southwest Virginia, you may have seen them. Pulling 53-foot-long trailers, and standing over 13 feet tall, they are hard to miss.

But you may not have heard them, because they move very quietly. They are battery-electric trucks, forerunners of an electrified future, and they are already running daily routes in Southwest Virginia. 

Camrett Logistics is one of several companies using electric trucks in the region. Camrett, headquartered in Wytheville, provides third-party warehousing and distribution services for clients including the Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin. 

Camrett has a two-way relationship with Volvo. Camrett bought a 2022 VNR electric truck from Volvo that went into service in July. It shuttles parts from Camrett warehouses in Dublin and Fairlawn to the Volvo plant.

“This is a near-perfect scenario to test the electric trucks,” said Collin Peel, founder and CEO of Camrett. “The current truck is running probably a 10-mile loop. So if something were to ever happen, it’s only 10 miles from the shop. And it’s working very well. We actually have it running roughly 20 hours a day.” It receives a charge in the middle afternoon, then a 90-minute charge late at night.

Collin Peel, founder and CEO of Camrett.
Collin Peel, founder and CEO of Camrett. Camrett photo.

Diesel trucks can run 600 miles without refueling, Peel said. 

Volvo VNR Electrics are available as straight trucks, in which all axles are attached to a single frame, or as tractors that pull trailers. The VNR 6×4 — meaning it has six wheels on three axles, and the four rear wheels receive power — can run up to 275 miles on a charge, according to Volvo’s website. 

“This is just a good time to prototype, because we see electrification coming over the next five years,” Peel said. “Why not take one or two trucks, do the testing, make sure it’s feasible, even though the price of the units are astronomical at this point in time. We’re hoping with the government subsidies and some of the savings of the fuel, we can bring the cost … down to compete with the diesel fuel.”

Volvo sells through dealers, and the price varies according to the service contract and the configuration of the truck. Class 8 (heavy) electric trucks typically sell for more than $300,000, according to online sources. In addition, users must install charging stations, which add another $70,000 to $75,000, Peel said. By comparison, new diesels are around $150,000. 

In addition to studying the economics, Peel wants to find out how they handle winter weather, and how they deal with hills.

Drivers like the trucks, Peel said. “They just say they’re smooth, they don’t have to change gears.  It’s got all the ability to pull. Sometimes you’re pulling 48,000 pounds, sometimes you’re pulling 15,000 pounds. They have no drag. The truck competes very well with a diesel truck.”

Becky Fields, one of Camrett’s drivers, gave the Volvo VNR Electric high marks for a quiet, smooth ride, and the heated seat with a back massager. “It’s already got me spoiled,” she said.

Camrett Logistics and another Volvo logistics partner, Watsontown Trucking Company, ordered their first Volvo VNR Electric trucks in 2021. Nacarato Truck Center in Troutville provides maintenance and support.

In September, Volvo and public and private partners in Southern California concluded a three-year pilot study called Volvo LIGHTS. The goal was to identify challenges and lay the foundation of successful commercialization of battery-electric trucking. Objectives included identification of ideal routes for electrification; strengthening dealer support, building charging infrastructure, training technicians, and raising awareness among first responders about the high-voltage elements on the VNR Electric.

“Zero emission trucks work – as this project shows – and we need strong rules, in many states and federally, promoting them. This project shows that this technology can serve business and deliver protections that will benefit the health of our communities that need it the most,” Craig Segall, California Air Resources Board (CARB) deputy executive officer for mobile sources and incentives, said in a press release.

Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America.
Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America. Randy Walker photo.

Volvo needs to move toward electromobility in order to survive or lead in the future, said Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America. 

Volvo has 11% of the U.S. truck market.

“Ultimately, all these [electric] trucks need to be built. And they will be built here,” Voorhoeve said. “We started in 2019 … a $400 million dollar investment project that we are now executing. Dublin is now in the heart of building very innovative trucks.”

The number of electric trucks coming off the assembly lines is in the hundreds per year, Voorhoeve said.

California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Program, which offers a $120,000 point-of-sale discount to purchasers of the VNR Electric, has been the “most impactful” government incentive program to date, Voorhoeve said.

In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act offers tax credits for purchase of electric trucks and the installation of charging equipment. 

Through a combination of improved combustion engines, fuel-cell electrics, and battery electrics, Volvo is aiming at a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2040 when it hopes to reach a goal of an emissions free transport fleet.

“We do this because I strongly believe we have a responsibility to our children, to our grandchildren, to hand over a better world,” Voorhoeve said.

* * *

Writer drives an electric truck

The writer at the wheel of an electric truck after having driven the track without crashing.
The writer at the wheel of an electric truck after having driven the track without crashing. Photo by Rob Simpson, Volvo. 

Can a guy who normally drives a Honda Fit drive a Class 8, heavy-duty, over-the-road truck, pulling a 53-foot trailer loaded with 73,000 pounds (of sandbags)?

He can, if it’s a Volvo electric truck, it’s on an enclosed track, and he has Rob Simpson as co-pilot.

As part of a media event at Volvo Trucks North America on Sept. 29, writers were offered the opportunity to drive electric trucks. Having never driven anything larger than a rented U-Haul, and easily able to visualize catastrophes, I almost didn’t take the offer. But I’m glad I did.

Rob Simpson is the director of the customer center at Volvo Trucks. As I climbed into the cab of the VNR Electric, he asked if I was ready to go. Confessing my nerves, I asked if there had ever been a wreck. No, he said, although there had been a few “incidents.”
To get going, all I had to do was press the brake release button (the air escaping was the loudest noise of the whole experience), press the “D” button (for drive), and put my foot on the gas pedal — except there is no gas, or rather, no diesel fuel.

Electric truck on the customer experience track at the Volvo plant.
Electric truck on the customer experience track at the Volvo plant. Randy Walker photo.

Voila, I was driving a truck on Volvo’s “customer experience track.” They don’t call it a test track, Rob said, because that makes it sound like somebody is trying to break something.

As I got up to around 24 mph on the straightaway, the two-speed transmission imperceptibly (to me, although Rob could hear it), shifted into its higher gear.

A gauge indicates whether the battery is delivering power to the motor, or recharging via regenerative braking. By keeping an eye on the gauge, the pros quickly learn to drive with maximum efficiency, Rob said.

Driving this behemoth was amazingly easy. The ride was quiet and smooth. I never would have known it was pulling a full load if Rob had not told me.

Just like a real trucker, I navigated an S curve and a tunnel. Unlike a real trucker I did not have to contend with unpredictable drivers, sharp turns, backing into a parking space, or ice and sleet. It was a beautiful day.

After two trips around the 1.1 mile track, I braked to a stop, thanked Rob, and stepped down onto the pavement, a bit exhilarated, and grateful I had not caused an embarrassing incident for Cardinal News.

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...