When Göran Nyberg, president of Volvo Trucks North America, raised his Champagne glass to toast the debut of the company’s new generation VNL long-haul truck Tuesday, he had much to celebrate.
After a prolonged slump, the market for trucks in the heaviest Class 8 segment is rebounding. And the turnaround has come just as Volvo has brought out new long-haul and regional-haul models, giving the company its freshest line up since entering the U.S. market in 1959.
Nyberg said the new models provide Volvo with the right trucks just as the e-commerce explosion is driving sales of regional trucks and the market for big rigs improves into 2018.
Trucks.com sat down with Nyberg at Volvo’s new Customer Center adjacent to its New River Valley assembly plant in Dublin, Va., to talk about the new models, self-driving trucks and the future of trucking powertrain technology.
What does the new generation 2018 VNL Class 8 truck do better than Volvo’s current model?
It is driver productivity, uptime, safety and fuel efficiency. That is what is driving us. We need to stay ahead of the competition when it comes to fuel efficiency and total cost of ownership.
But we also need a truck that attracts drivers, especially in the long-haul market where the driver community is not as big as we would like to see. Having a good driver environment not only for driving but also so that they can live in the truck is of upmost importance.
Fully self-driving trucks, when will they be on the highway?
I think for the near future you will definitely have drivers in the vehicles. There will be a lot of good improvements when it comes to driver assistance – helping the drivers to be safer, to be more efficient in their daily work. One day maybe we will experience driverless vehicles but I think that is yet to be seen.
I normally compare this with the airline industry. A modern aircraft today can take off, fly and land at its destination without the pilot, but we still have pilots. An aircraft is automated today but when the aircraft needs the pilot it really needs the pilot. That goes for vehicles as well.
We have a lot of good technology that will make our vehicles much safer and more efficient and maybe one day we will be at the stage where we see a driverless vehicle.
How do you see the rollout of self-driving technology?
It will be step-by-step based on driver assistance. The first step is feet off. We have cruise control today, we have active braking systems, we have Volvo Dynamic Steering that maybe will help us to be hands off. We would have a driver governing the system. The next step might be that we can remove the driver from sitting behind the steering wheel. But that is yet to be seen.
We are looking at confined areas, such as our mining test, where you could see fully autonomous vehicles. That is a good test ground for us to prove technology and confirm that it really works.
Volvo tested platooning – where semi-autonomous, digitally tethered groups of trucks drive closely together to save fuel – earlier this year at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex. When will platooning happen?
We are fairly advanced on that. We are running live trials on it. I cannot give you a time perspective but it is something we are actively developing.
Toyota is testing a heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell truck, others are looking at electric trucks. What is Volvo doing in this arena?
We are looking at different solutions for the future. In our core segment, long-haul trucking, the diesel engine will for the foreseeable future be the powerplant of our products. But we are exploring alternative ways forward – everything from electromotive mobility to other alternatives. We are fairly advanced in electro-mobility when it comes to our bus division. We believe, especially on the light and medium duty side of the business that it will be a part of the future.
How is e-commerce affecting the truck market?
You can see that e-commerce is driving the regional haul market. Instead of delivering to the stores there are a lot of home deliveries. There is a lot of debate about the last mile delivery and how that is going to develop in the marketplace. E-commerce has a big impact on the transport industry, especially for local distribution. It is an interesting pattern and e-commerce is not yet at its full potential.
Volvo has not quite 12 percent of the Class 8 truck market in the U.S. Where are you heading with market share now that you have your freshest truck lineup ever?
Bigger is better. We believe with the investments we have done [in new truck models] that we have a good growth potential. Our product range today is the VHD and for construction, the VAH for auto carriers and the VNR for regional business and then our flagship VNL for the long-haul sleeper business.
But this comes with high expectations. You always want to have the highest amount of return for your investment.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity.