Hitting all the right buttons, the Volvo BZL is addressing the current demands for cleaner transport solutions. Leading in the region when it comes to emission norms, Singapore is one of the logical countries that is set to see the introduction of this innovative bus sooner rather than later. Asian Buses spoke with Mr. Mats Nilsson, Director of Volvo Buses Asia Pacific Region Central and Achuth Das - Senior Manager Commercial Sales to find out more about the chassis and its roll-out.
Volvo recognises that times are constantly changing and with that, strategies and approaches to business have to change. “What we can observe is that change is accelerating. It is not just change for the sake of change anymore, it is part of our lives,” said Nilsson when asked why the brand would see the need to tweak their strategy alongside the introduction of their latest offering. Electromobility, connectivity and mobility are of course the main drivers of this change.
A more focused push globally for more environmentally friendly products add to the pressure to adapt. In combination with a new president coming in, the new strategy is an evolution rather than a revolution. Nilsson stated that the mantra is that in times of rapid change the most dangerous course of action is to stand still. “It is not the strongest of the species, it is the most adaptable,” Nilsson sums this up.
While the core values remain, the immediate focus will be placed on electromobility. Volvo has always been a premium provider, and this is now reflected in the pursuit of specific market segments. “We can’t be everything to everyone. We never have had that approach.” Partnerships, even with those that are traditionally considered competitors are now pushed into the limelight. Addressing current challenges requires the entire industry to work together and in certain areas this is not only possible, but beneficial for all stakeholders.
One result of such partnerships is the implementation of a unified charging infrastructure being created across Europe. Volvo is now working with a number of start-ups in Sweden and the Silicon Valley. Another facet is the emphasis of services over products as the provision of sophisticated tools is now paramount in providing the best value for clients.
A Kind of Fuel
Electricity can be classified as a fuel. In this context, it is important to note that the makers of vehicles nowadays are getting much more involved in the provision of the fuels. With ICE (Internal Combustion Engines), OEMs would develop the vehicle and leave the development of fuels to third parties, which in turn would be specialists in their respective field. However, when thinking about the concept of “Well to Wheel”, one would now also include considerations about the production of electricity as a fuel when developing a new bus (or truck). “It helps nobody if the charging infrastructure is brand specific. Any larger fleet would be a mix of brands. It is in the interest of everyone to create a network of charging points that is one useable by any brand.”
“All of us are learning about electro mobility with a fresh start,” Das added. He however said that ICE would have undergone the exact same development phase back when this technology was first pioneered and introduced. Das expects that currently, a lot more work needs to be done, but once the product reaches a certain level of maturity, the creation of new vehicles would be similar to when a new ICE-powered vehicle would have been launched. “Take for instance the introduction of EURO VI. We would have to ensure the correct PPM level of Sulphur in the fuel, but that is something that can be achieved quickly as the infrastructure has already been set up.” What complicates the adoption of electric vehicles is that certain brands have their own standards. As the industry moves ahead, a unification of standards is already being observed.
Within a sustainability framework, preservation of resources is an aspect that Volvo is putting into the development process as well. There are certain materials that Volvo has black-listed as they are deemed unsustainable.
In order to facilitate the knowledge creation around electromobility, a supporting environment is needed. Not only does there need to be an openness for new technology, but also a willingness for a society to change. As Nilsson puts it, a long-term vision in combination with technical capabilities and readiness for a leap is needed: Singapore is one such place that offers exactly that!
“I am always amazed when I arrive here: the luggage arrives at the carousel before you do. And that is the result of a holistic approach to an issue,” Nilsson said. The same applies, in his view, to the implementation of a new technology, such as electrified transport systems. As the next logical step, electro mobility is the evolution of Singapore to move on from the EURO VI emission standards that have been in place for a while now. It does help that the country is boasting a very high GDP per capita, thus enabling the introduction of technology that would be initially more costly than traditional products. Affordability is a concern that needs to be addressed in some markets.
Launched firstly in Australia in Asia Pacific, the BZL has since seen some positive responses. “We need to remind ourselves that electric vehicles still constitute a very small share of a potentially huge market,” Nilsson elaborated. In Europe, Volvo Group commands a 61 percent market share among the heavy duty electric trucks in 2021. However, he is also cautiously aware of the fact that Asian brands are catching up rapidly. Measuring the interest for the BZL, Singapore is one of the countries that is high on the list for Volvo to launch the BZL. In this connection, Nilsson said that the advent of electro mobility has also been a big reset as it is now a fact that companies that were previously not engaged in transport solutions now come up with their own creation. However, it is still the deep understanding of the needs of the market that is keeping brands like Volvo leading the business, as it is not just about putting together parts that make up a bus.
Of course, Volvo’s BZL is a premium product. And with it come all the benefits. For instance, the availability and guaranteed supply of consumables for a long time is part of the offering. “It is the sustainability of the supplier’s business that more and more people are looking at, realising that it is vital to have spare parts availability of over a decade, availability of trained mechanics and where your business is actually located.” Uptime, TCO and other aspects add on to the discussion about electro mobility.
Paving the Road
While the BZL may not be available for sales in Asia as yet, it doesn’t mean that Volvo in Singapore is passive. The preparation of the product for the market is a crucial phase. Collecting inputs from the market is one activity. In seminars and discussions, Volvo is contributing and learning about how the local market is expecting the final offer to look like. For instance, Singapore is the only market that sees three doors in their buses to reduce dwell time and to encourage passengers to move further to the back. “This is something that we have never seen in any other market, and we obviously need to prepare our vehicles for this local adaptation,” Das said. In addition, the Southeast Asian market poses a special demand due to the climate. Air conditioning must be much more powerful, which means that the battery on board the bus must be specified accordingly. Over the past two decades, Volvo has also ensured that the service network is prepared to handle any new product, something that the teams are currently busy with as well.
Make Some Noise
Electric vehicles can be quiet. Very quiet. From the passenger car side we already know that a vehicle has to emit some noise. Pedestrians for instance, will need to be alerted to approaching vehicles. Otherwise, they may put themselves in danger. Provisions in Singaporean tenders have already been made to ensure that electric buses emit a certain level of noise to alert other users on the road. “This is of course in line with our core value of safety,” Das said.
The industry is still learning about the challenges and opportunities of electrification of transportation. “For instance, as societies we need to get a better understanding of sustainable behaviour. Take for instance your normal battery for a TV remote. It is not good enough to acknowledge this as a convenient means to store energy, but it requires proper disposal at the end of life. It is similar with the new generation of electrified vehicles whereby the need for handling and disposal of batteries at the end of life is critial.”
Thanks to Asian Buses for the collaboration in developing this article”