Martin Lundgren

Tech & etiquette just two of the factors key to road haulage electrification, says Virta’s Martin Lundgren

It’s no secret that the electrification of road freight cannot succeed without the charging infrastructure to meet the needs of growing electric truck fleets. Virta, the fastest-growing electric vehicle charging platform in Europe, is one of the players that is striving to address this demand. The company is currently working with Swedish charging station operator Nimbnet on a national HGV charging network with stations in Gothenburg, Söderhamn, Sundsvall, and Nordmaling.

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The network is designed to enable Swedish logistics companies to replace most of the current 85,000 heavy trucks with electric ones. To achieve this, Nimbnet and Virta have joined forces and teamed up with Kempower, a provider of fast charging systems for electric vehicles.

It is hoped that trucks will be able to take advantage of the network before the end of the year, with the ultimate aim being to fill all the main geographical blank spaces to ensure that all of Sweden can be serviced by electric trucks.

While it all may look straightforward on paper, the reality is somewhat different. There are numerous tough considerations to be made in a space that is developing at breakneck speed. How should the charging points be designed? What should they incorporate? Which kind of chargers should each station have? How should drivers use the charging facilities?

These are just some of the issues that Virta is having to grapple with as it seeks to play a major role in the electrification of Swedish road freight.

To get to the heart of these issues, as well as the key factors influencing the electric charging station market, we quizzed Martin Lundgren, Virta’s Country Director for the Scandinavian markets.

Read on to find out:

  • The motivations behind Sweden’s investment in EV charging
  • What must be considered when a charging station is built
  • Why classification and user etiquette are important
  • How charging standards have changed and are developing
  • The supply chain issues impacting the construction of charging points
  • About industry concerns over grid capacity

Thanks for talking to trans.iNFO Martin. Why is Sweden investing so much in electric charging?

Well, as all Swedes know, and probably the rest of Europe, one of the few things that we actually still do in our country is truck manufacturing, whether it be Scania or Volvo.

These companies are taking quite a substantial lead in electrification. Their tone of voice on this is quite strong and they are arguably thought leaders on the subject.

The Swedish Government has reacted to this by creating a subsidised program for the creation of a public heavy duty vehicle charging network. To call it subsidised is actually putting it lightly, the government is paying for it in its entirety.

The first release of funds was Q1 last year, the second release was Q1 this year. The plan here is to enhance key and geographically challenged areas with 350 kilowatt charging points that can operate over a long period of time.

This way, we can make sure that when these trucks come rolling into the market, they have the infrastructure they need. It’s important, as I recall Sweden being referred to as geographically challenged at one time, and I actually think that’s quite a fair assessment.

If we can make it work, anyone can make it work. I think that’s the message they want to send.

What is the primary motivation behind this?

It’s partially because of lobbying from industry. The second thing is that I don’t see it as a direct financial decision. It’s more about fast-tracking the transition to electric charging.

From an environmental perspective, I think you could consider this charging network as the first push of a snowball rolling down the hill. If you don’t have a little bit of velocity in the beginning, it’s going to be a very slow process. However, if it actually rolls and has both velocity and weight, then it can gain momentum. So the funding can provide this push and then others can come onboard to build on this momentum.

If we look back, what boosted the growth of EVs in Sweden, despite many of the models having low range batteries, was heavy subsidisation and tax benefits. Once those measures were applied, then the infrastructure network started to grow organically.

The biggest concern over the switch to EV truck Logistics is range and availability. So if we take away the biggest hurdle, the rest will follow organically.

What factors need to be considered when charging areas and charging networks are constructed?

Well, to begin with, It’s not just a case of Hauliers and drivers needing depot charging. They do of course also need their truck to fit on the site. It’s more complex than for standard vehicles. They don’t want to have to leave the trailer behind before charging – it needs to be easy and accessible.

Can I reserve a slot? How much does it cost to reserve a slot? What happens if someone is still there when I arrive in time for my slot?

All of these things are unravelling at an unprecedented tempo, because the first vehicles are now on the ground. We’re finding new things every day that need to be serviced with the operators and customers. The problem here is that there is no silver bullet.

What do we need to facilitate a smooth transition to electric road freight? Can you provide some specific examples?

When it comes to the specifics, there is no standard classification for site charging. So when we’re speaking about heavy duty or trucks, there are variations in dimension and weight. EV charging still doesn’t have classifications. Data that matches a charging site to a truck’s size or classification does not exist.

That’s something that is being developed as we speak, and we’ll be ready to go sometime during this year. This has been driven by the CPOs (charge point operators) and the end users. It’s a must have rather than a nice to have. If we don’t have it, we’ll run into issues.

Secondly, there is the quite interesting example about how etiquette can form around things. For example, Tesla opened up their network for public use in the Netherlands for a short period before doing the same for more sites all over Europe.

One of the issues that came up was that Tesla owners were upset with new EV drivers that did not follow Tesla drivers’ social norms when parking their car among other things. What do you do once you’re charged? How quickly should you leave? How does the queue work? Tesla owners had formed a kind of etiquette for these things that varied from some other users.

Bearing that in mind, I think it may take time for an accepted etiquette to form in the trucking community. There is quite a strong subculture of perspectives. In many regards, drivers and hauliers may be quicker to adapt, but they still need to find some sort of established etiquette with the charging station owners and network providers. Then there’s the question of how we can get the message across and find common ground on a set of informal rules that will make charging smoother. I think that’s a challenge that’s exciting to take on.

Just how quickly is charging technology developing, and how does that impact forward planning for charging stations?

When we think about planning, there are a number of factors to consider in relation to the charging alone. For example, personal vehicles charge on 500 volts, whereas 800 volts is seen as the level of voltage for trucks.

However, if you want to do really fast charging and extended range, we are talking about even higher voltages. Three years ago, a 50-kilowatt, 500-volt system was considered to be a fast public charger. Today, customers don’t even look at them.

With this in mind, we’re trying to educate our customers not to build at maximum capacity. They should have some space redundant to install newer power units when they are available, as well as having systems that can switch between 800 and 500 volts.

If we are talking 1000 volts, then we’ll need 500 kilowatts chargers per socket in two years. Even then, however, we don’t know if that will soon be an obsolete network. The tech development is so fast. What we know on Friday may feel solid and understood, but then on Monday morning we could realise the ground has shifted again.

How problematic is it getting planning permission for charging stations in Scandinavia?

The biggest issue in Scandinavia is not actually the authorities granting permission to set up charging stations. That has actually been quite smooth, even for trucks. A lot of large CPO networks already have approval.

The biggest issue is the lack of high voltage cables. Hardware is difficult too because of the war and the pandemic. It takes time to plan the construction and get enough power – the grid is simply too stretched. This means it’s possible that customers have two to three years waiting time when they are ready to invest.

So they may actually want to build fast-charging parking areas for trucks, but they can’t because the electricity suppliers cannot promise enough capacity. That’s actually the biggest hurdle in Scandinavia as Sweden, as well as Norway, Finland and Denmark.

And finally, what are you working on together with Nimbnet?

We’re building with Nimbnet the solution around the customer, creating the required metadata structure. It’s extremely data-driven in that regard. We are figuring out in advance where the gaps are, where we need to build, and what the market expects among other things. I would go into more details, but I’m reluctant to give away our secret sauce!

It’s a case of meeting the challenges we’ve discussed head on, and then being ready to meet the demands of the market. We can see things from an OEM’s perspective, logistics company’s perspective, as well as the perspective of the CPO and end user perspective. We can then take all of these interests into account to service everyone.