Volvo's electrifying future may include 'platooning'

  • 11-Feb-2011 10:40 EST

Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby says of the company's extensive electric-vehicle program: "We will achieve economies of scale as the market builds."

Volvo [Cars] needs to return to its Swedish roots—not so much sporty but more functional. Simplicity is the key,” says the company’s CEO Stefan Jacoby.

That may sound as if Volvo, now owned by Geely, is going to ease up on high-tech projects, but that is not the situation; he insists that functional and high technology sit very comfortably together.

That combo will be the foundation of Volvo’s electric vehicle program. It would fit comfortably within the futuristic—and optimistic—EU SARTRE (SAfe Road Trains for the Environment) project, of which Volvo Cars is one of seven consortium members. Reducing road transport’s negative effect on the environment and improving safety via the use of "road trains" (known colloquially as “platooning”) are two of the project’s aims, both also at the core of the company’s technology and business philosophy. Volvo stresses the importance of the project also providing time for all vehicle occupants to read and work.

“We will introduce the C30 electric model into small fleets in 2011, and the V60 will be available as a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) with production starting in 2012," Jacoby said in detailing the present status of Volvo’s commitment to electric vehicles. It will have CO2 emissions of 49 g/km. EVs are not yet competitive, but we will achieve economies of scale as the market builds. Battery prices are already coming down.”

The V60 will be a D5-engined diesel PHEV. The IC (internal-combustion) engine will power the front wheels, an electric motor the rears; it can be operated in pure electric mode driven by the rear wheels, IC only powering the front, or as an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

Jacoby, who previously spent much of his career with Volkswagen (as President and CEO VW Group of America from 2007 to 2010), said that when he took over at Volvo in August 2010, he planned to set aside his initial 100 days for a “deep dive regime,” visiting the company’s R&D facilities, factories, and dealers. But the pressures of directing a modern auto company made that impossible: “I was totally wrong with that approach; you have to throw yourself straight into the cold water and start swimming!”

He wants Volvo to build 800,000 vehicles annually in 10 years’ time (current capacity is about 500,000) and sees a significant part of that total comprising electric vehicles.

One of Jacoby’s aims is to lower Volvo’s platform count from the current three to two or possibly only one. Although no specific announcement has been made, because of the powertrain mix envisaged (IC, PHEV, pure EV), this indicates the creation of a multirole platform/architecture, although Volvo has yet to give details.

Jacoby said that design engineers are now working on solutions that would place batteries in the center tunnel through the cabin, would meet front-rear weight distribution targets, and also contribute to safety levels, while permitting the use of larger battery systems for increased range.

But Volvo, like Mercedes-Benz, is also looking at fuel-cell technology as a low/zero emissions solution. In Volvo’s application, however, it would be just as a range extender and to support ancillaries. The Swedish Energy Agency is backing a program to have two prototypes using the technology undergoing real-life testing in 2012 (Volvo is also working with Powercell Sweden AB) based on the battery-powered C30 DRIVe (now called C30 Electric). Jacoby sees fuel cells—which still present significant cost challenges—as giving the sort of realistic ranges that end users are likely to demand.

The fuel cell would not use hydrogen but would incorporate a reformer and use gasoline as its fuel source to create hydrogen. Volvo sees a vehicle with a fuel-cell range-extender added to the battery pack possibly achieving an extra 250 km (155 mi) depending on fuel-tank size, taking the car’s best operating range to about 400 km (249 mi).

“It is too early to talk about market introduction of electric cars with range extenders,” stated Jacoby. “The industrial decision will come when we have learned more about fuel cells and the opportunities they offer.”

The Volvo C30 Electric uses a lithium-ion battery, and its 82-kW motor is placed under the hood. Top speed is 130 km/h (81 mph), and 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) acceleration takes 10.5 s.

By 2020-25, Volvo estimates that electric cars will account for at least 3% and possibly 10% of EU-country market share.

With safety a central plank of Volvo’s technology strategy, the company’s approach to electric vehicles includes programs to develop advanced automatic battery monitoring of battery status and encapsulation of batteries. Component-level and real-life crash tests include not only the effect on batteries of a collision but also of harsh braking. Production, daily use, servicing, and recycling are also considered as elements of Volvo’s safety design and development process, which is divided into five phases: normal driving, conflict, avoidance, collision, and post collision.

If a battery (protected and positioned outside the main deformation zone) is damaged, resulting in gas leakage, ducts carry any resultant gas beneath the car; power supply is automatically shut off in the event of a collision, and encapsulation shields occupants from any extreme heat generated.

Volvo’s electric-car expertise may be of significance in subsequent developments based on the SARTRE. Although the consortium does not specifically include an electric-car aspect, the potential importance of the technology (particularly in relation to Volvo’s range targets achievable within a decade) may be significant. The aim of the current program is to develop, test, and validate technology for vehicles that can drive themselves in long road trains or platoons on motorways and also to help gain customer acceptance.

Such a possibility has been considered by companies for many years, but it is only now that processing systems are in place that make it possible to meet the stringent standards required, including vehicle-to-vehicle communications. An essential element of SARTRE is to assess and understand what legislation and standards would need to be changed if platooning becomes a reality.

Ricardo is the lead partner, working with Volvo Technology Corp. and Volvo Car Corp.; Robotiker-Tecnalia Technology Center; SP Technical Research Institute, Sweden; Applus and IDIADA; and the Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge of the RWTH Aachen University, (ika), Germany.

The initial phase of the project has seen the partners considering the basic principles of a platooning system, with issues investigated including usage, human factors, behavior associated with platooning, core system parameters, and specification of prototype architectures and applications.

Real testing is following the implementation phase, which has seen installation of hardware in two vehicles for lead and following roles. The technology will include the vital vehicle-to- vehicle communications, integration of sensors, and low-level actuators for lateral and longitudinal control of the following vehicle. Software integration for automated driving has started. By 2012 it is anticipated that a five-vehicle road train will be under test.

Human factor simulator testing is being carried out at Tecnalia, Bilbao, Spain. The simulator has a 120° forward view via LCD screens and a virtual 18 km (11 mi) of motorway. The simulator has a steering wheel with force feedback, manual and auto transmission controls, and haptic seat capability.

SARTRE’s main target is to achieve a step-change in personal transport usage via platoons, which it hopes will lead to environmental, safety, and congestion improvements, together with enhancing people’s free time during travel. The development of electric vehicles with sufficient range could help play a significant role in achieving these aims.

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