Tech

As Volvo goes electric, heres how its making its batteries top-notch

  • Volvo HQ in Gothenburg, Sweden. Jonathan Gitlin
  • The XC40 isn't the first battery EV in the company's history, and as luck would have it, one of the few C30 Electrics happened to be parked outside in the rain. Jonathan Gitlin
  • This is the powertrain of the XC40 Recharge, the new electric Volvo. If it's orange, that means its high-voltage. Volvo
  • A look under the hood of the XC40 Recharge. Volvo
  • The reason there's not a huge cargo space under the hood should be obvious when you see this picture. The orange stuff up top is the inverter and control electronics. Below it is a new crash structure, and the electric motor is just about visible beneath that. Jonathan Gitlin
  • A cutaway of the battery pack's frame. Jonathan Gitlin
  • Behind the back of Volvo's new battery lab, a bunch of test vehicles being charged. Jonathan Gitlin
  • Ulrik Persson, head of Volvo's traction battery development, gives us a quick lecture on what it takes to make good batteries. Volvo
  • Persson's lab contains dozens of these test chambers. Some of them will be in operation for over a year for durability testing. Volvo
  • A Volvo engineer shows us inside one of the test chambers. Volvo
  • The cells are connected to cooling feeds, as well as electrically so they can be charged and discharged again and again and again. Volvo
  • A closeup of a prismatic cell in a test chamber. Volvo
  • Temperature is the biggest determinant in how long a battery lasts but also how well it operates. Volvo
  • Some of the chambers are big enough for complete battery packs. Volvo
  • A closeup of the battery pack in the chamber. Volvo
  • Volvo also has to create sounds for electric cars to satisfy regulations in the US and elsewhere. Here's the anechoic chamber where the company does that. Volvo

Volvo covered travel costs for this story, which is common practice in the auto industry. Ars does not accept paid editorial content. Electric cars are becoming much more important to automakers, and that means those companies are having to learn how to get good with batteries. That was baked into Tesla from day one, but for existing automakers, batteries have to become a new core competency. Recently, Volvo opened its doors in Gothenburg, Sweden, to show us how that's happening, ahead of the launch later this year of its new battery EV, the XC40 Recharge.

Volvo was an early advocate for going electric, announcing a plan for its model range shortly after it told us that it was ending development on diesel engines. That plan calls for 50 percent of its sales to be BEVs by 2025, but actually implementing that plan is more involved than just holding a press conference, and it's a transformation that affects the entire company. Engineers are being retrained to work with electric motors instead of internal combustion engines. Supply lines and purchasing have to get to grips with responsibly sourcing a new range of materials. The carmaker even has to think about what its new EVs should sound like.

Volvos have to be safe

Volvo has built its reputation on safety, and obviously the move to electric powertrains can't be allowed to compromise that.

"You may think that it's an advantage to have something smaller like an electrical motor compared to a combustion engine in the front [of the vehicle]. But the way that we design for frontal crashes, taking into consideration the real world accidents where you have angles, different speeds, different offsets, the engine itself is actually part of the system to help distribute the loads," explained Thomas Broberg, one of Volvo's senior technical advisers for safety.

Consequently, don't expect a voluminous Tesla-style cargo frunk between the front wheels of an electric XC40. While there is a storage space under the hood, underneath that (and below the inverter and control electronics for the front motor) is a large steel crash structure that distributes frontal impact loads away from the car's occupants in the same way Volvo's internal combustion engines are designed to do.

The battery pack, like just about every EV since General Motors' AUTOnomy concept of 2002, lives between the front and rear axles, and it contributes significantly to the car's structural rigidity and crashworthiness. One doesn't envy the engineers, for the pack has to satisfy two potentially competing demands. Obviously a collision can't compromise the integrity of the pack itself, because lithium-ion cells don't react well to being short-circuited. But equally, you can't design an indestructible pack unless you want the vehicle occupants to absorb all the kinetic energy of a crash instead.

Its building its own battery packs

But Volvo's electrification isn't starting at day one with the XC40 Recharge. There was a very short-lived electric version of the diminutive C30 hatchback, and of course there have been plug-in hybrid versions of its larger 90 and 60 series vehicles since the Scalable Product Architecture first debuted with the XC90 SUV back in 2015. But that old BEV and even the

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