With around seven per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions coming from heavy road transport, European manufacturers such as Volvo are racing to achieve ambitious net zero targets. The Swedish company recently announced it will add battery electric truck models to its Australian production line by 2027.
It’s not widely known, but Australia’s largest original equipment manufacturer (OEM) vehicle manufacturing facility is not located in Melbourne, Sydney or even Adelaide, but in Brisbane’s south-western suburbs.
Last year, Volvo Truck Australia celebrated 50 years of manufacturing at its Wacol facility, and earlier this year chalked up its 75,000th locally manufactured truck.
The Wacol facility is the only plant worldwide where Volvo and Volvo-owned Mack trucks are built side by side, with an estimated 800 people producing around 3500 trucks for the two brands per year, according to Senior Vice President of Volvo Truck Australia Gary Bone.
Now, the Wacol plant is busy preparing for another significant milestone, with the news that Volvo will manufacture its FH, FM and FMX heavy-duty battery electric trucks here from 2027.
Speaking at a Volvo Truck Sustainability Summit ahead of the opening day of the Brisbane Truck Show in early May, President of Volvo Group Australia Martin Merrick confirmed the company would push ahead with its plan to build electric trucks in Australia.
He said this was despite the company being disappointed that the Federal Government’s National Electric Vehicle Strategy had little to say about heavy vehicles and road transport.
Volvo started series production of its first electric trucks in 2019 and now has six different electric models in production, which it claims is the widest offering in the industry.
Volvo Truck Australia already sells several smaller electric truck models here, but the new FH, FM and FMX Electric models are its first heavy-duty battery electric trucks, with load ratings of 44 and 27 tonnes respectively.
They look like combustion engine variants, but feature large battery packs arranged down the sides of the vehicle where fuel tanks would normally be and electric motors located between the chassis rails.
The larger 44-tonne rated FH Electric comes with three different cab options, five to six battery packs depending on range requirements, usable energy storage of between 450–540kWh, up to 300km of range, and 490kW of continuous power from its three electric motors.
From diesel to electric
The heavy-duty battery electric Volvos will initially be imported before local manufacturing begins in 2027, with Volvo Group Australia’s Jeff Hamanne overseeing their introduction to Wacol’s busy production line.
Hamanne is Volvo’s vice president of Group Truck Technology and holds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and a Masters of Engineering Management from the Queensland University of Technology.
He said the electric models will be built on the same production line as current Volvo diesel trucks, requiring restructuring of the factory to accommodate the extra parts and a review of the assembly plant master process.
“The challenge is that we’re not going to convert a factory building a diesel product into one building an electric product tomorrow,” he said. “That’s going to grow the diversity of the offering.
“Our global factory target all along has been to use the same industrial footprint to build these products. The challenge that Wacol will have is that it’s physically constrained. It’s not like we’re in the middle of a 100-acre block of land that we can use as we wish.”
The company is now looking at how to rejig the factory layout.
“That’s the most obvious thing that needs to be dealt with,” Hamanne said. “However, it might also be one of the easier things because it is just space usage – and that’s not highly complex. But you then need a workforce that can build a vehicle that is inherently more dangerous.
“For instance, we can’t paint an electric truck in the same way we do a diesel truck. We can’t put the electrical components into the paint oven and bake them for hours at 70 or 80 degrees. So challenges around the process and how we can adapt have become a big question for us.”
He said the company is well familiar with diesel, having worked in that space for years – but using an electrical system requires staff with the appropriate qualifications.
Volvo Truck Australia is working with the Queensland government to establish the necessary training and qualifications required for employees to work on high voltage electrical equipment.
“The government wants to classify these vehicles as electrical, mainstream and high voltage electrical, which then means you can’t have an average person doing it,” Hamanne said. “You need a workforce of qualified electricians to do the work. And that’s not practical. It’s not going to happen.
“It’s about learning, education and factory change. You need different people involved in the process to do it safely.”
Volvo Truck has set a target of having 50 per cent of its global volume as either battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks by 2030, and for all its trucks to be net zero emissions by 2040.
Volvo’s electric trucks are currently built at the company’s Tuve factory in Sweden and at its Ghent plant in Belgium.