Volvo Gets Serious about Plug-in Hybrids

When Volvo announced plans earlier this week to produce a plug-in diesel hybrid, green car fans understandably got excited. Consider the possibilities of a safe, stylish and highly functional Volvo V70—but one with plug-in capacity, the ability to go 30 or so miles on electricity alone, and the rest of the power coming from an efficient diesel engine. Media reports said this would be “a reality” by 2012.

At the press conference, Volvo chief executive Stephen Odell said, “This is a significant leap compared to our earlier plans of offering a regular full-hybrid on the market by 2012.” Volvo engineers now are working feverishly to achieve that goal. What you may not know is that Volvo is hardly a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to plug-in hybrids. As far back as 1992, Volvo—with its ECC, Environmental Concept Car—had identified hybrids as the most promising future auto technology.

In 2007, the company announced that it would work with Swedish energy company Vattenfall and battery manufacturer ETC Battery and Fuel Cells Sweden AB on a $10 million demonstration project to put 10 plug-in hybrids on Swedish roads by 2009. At that time, Volvo also unveiled the Volvo ReCharge, a flex-fuel plug-in concept hybrid that uses electric motors housed in each wheel. The ReCharge promises 0 – 60 mph performance of nine seconds, a top speed of 100 mph, and 60 miles of all-electric driving on a three-hour charge.

From Prototypes to Real Cars for Sale

Volvo is aiming to make the transition from prototypes and evaluation—to real vehicles that consumers can buy in Europe in 2012. The company admits that a diesel vehicle with a lithium ion battery will be expensive—and that’s the main point of the company’s announcement this week. Working with Vattenfall, Volvo hopes to gain a better understanding of the driving and charging habits of plug-in drivers. In this way, it can refine the design of its plug-in hybrid and determine if the lithium ion battery—the most expensive component in a plug-in hybrid or electric car—can be made smaller. If so, then the vehicle can be made more efficient, cheaper and especially safer. After all, it’s a Volvo.

The current Volvo V70 plug-in hybrid demonstration car uses a 11.3 kWh battery pack, that at current prices could cost $10,000 or more. Volvo expects those prices to come down, especially if the battery is downsized to meet, but not exceed, consumer needs. The battery pack is combined with a front-wheel drive diesel engine with a rear-wheel drive electric motor. The high cost of combining hybrid and diesel technology so far has prevented auto companies from introducing diesel-powered hybrids—with or without a plug.

Promotional video explaining the joint venture between Volvo Cars and Vattenfall to produce plug-in hybrids for the European market by 2012.

The announcement about Volvo’s plug-in hybrid test program comes at a time when the company’s future is uncertain. Ford, its parent company, is shopping the brand and there are reportedly several interested buyers. The severing of ties with the US auto company allows Volvo to fully reclaim its Swedish identity—and fully adopt the Swedish government’s goal of becoming the world’s first oil-free economy by 2020.

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  • ACAgal

    Wonder when these cars will be in the USA? Volvo usually does car right!

  • Octavius

    Am all for plug-in hybrids (even though I can’t afford them myself) because that’s the bridge from the oil age to the electric age of transportation.

    Just one question though: Even if every car sold in Sweden starting tomorrow were 100% electric, wouldn’t almost half of the cars on the street today still be around in 2020? Hard to imagine they are going to junk all those babies to just to be “oil-free” in 10.5 years. That, and I haven’t heard of anyone proposing all-electric semi-trailer trucks just yet — we’ll be waiting a while for that, I’m guessing.

  • patrick

    They will substitute oil derived diesel with sustainable bio diesel. They don’t need to junk the cars. This is the global solution to escape from fossil fuel dependency: reduce fuel demand by steadily introducing hybrid and electric technologies, whilst simultaneously introducing sustainable biofuels to replace the ever decreasing global fuel requirement. A carbon tax gradually increasing would be beneficial and neutral for consumers as they would use less fuel so total cost would remain stable. Tax revenue would subsidise new cars, biofuels and public transport improvements.

  • Caligula

    Wonder if they will put the electric motors in the wheels as in the concept car. Think about it. No need to transfer power from the motor to the wheel means a lighter car (few steel parts to make the wheels turn) and then the job of the diesel engine is simply to re-charge the batteries.

  • Jeff

    I listened to the video, and was a bit underwhelmed. They view nuclear power and “clean” coal as their non-polluting method for creating electricity. I thought they were trying to be innovative, not backward. Neither of those ways of producing electrical power takes us toward a sustainable, resilient future. Admittedly, they said their goal was being oil-free, but they are only exchanging one problem for another.

  • jeff

    We need higher taxes on gas to push efficiency and reduce demand for oil.
    At the same time this extra revenue needs to go towards research into battery and renewable Energy technology.
    There is not enough oil to last forever.
    There is too much smog, too much asthma, too much cancer, too much war.

  • Jan

    I think I have found my plug-in electric hybrid. I have a 2000 V70 and will trade this one in for this 2012 V70 plug-in hybrid diesel. The big question is, will Volvo import this one to the US?

  • Schakel


    Volvo will draw a lot of attention with this. I hope they make their cars lighter without losing their safety. Aluminium, Composites frame?

  • William Dryden

    There is a company in Australia that makes 450 kW electric differentials. They will take a 40 ton truck 0-60 in 21 seconds. I expect to see hybrids but no EVs as the limited range would hamper OTR 18-wheelers.

    UPS is looking at hydraulic hybrids for local deliveries. They are testing 50 of them now. I expect maintenance to be a nightmare once the trucks get a little mileage on them. Electric serial hybrids, plug-in or not, make much more sense to me as trains have been made that way for the last 80 years.