What if the highways were electric? Germany is testing the idea.
OBER-RAMSTADT, Germany – Recently, on a motorway south of Frankfurt, Thomas Schmieder maneuvered his Scania semi-trailer and load of house paint into the far right lane. Then he flipped a switch you won’t find on most truck dashboards.
Outside the cabin, a craft began to deploy from the roof, resembling a clothes dryer with an upside down sled welded to the top. As Mr. Schmieder continued to drive, a video display showed the metal runners rising and pushing gently against the wires passing above.
The cabin became very quiet when the diesel engine stopped and the electric motors took over. The truck was still a truck, but now it was powered like many trains or streetcars.
There is a debate about how to make the trucking industry emission-free, and whether batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are the best way to turn on electric motors in large vehicles. Mr Schmieder was part of a test of a third alternative: a system that supplies trucks with electricity as they travel, using wires stretched over the roadway and a pantograph mounted on the road. cabin.
At one level, the idea really makes sense. The system is energy efficient as it supplies energy directly from the power grid to the motors. The technology saves weight and money as batteries tend to be heavy and expensive, and a truck using overhead cables only needs a battery large enough to get from the off-ramp. to its final destination.
And the system is relatively simple. Siemens, the German electronics giant that supplied the material for this test route, has adapted equipment that has been used for decades to drive urban trains and trams.
On another level, the idea is crazy. Who is going to pay to run thousands of kilometers of high voltage power cables over the world’s major highways?
Figuring out how to make trucks emissions-free is a crucial part of the fight against climate change and polluted air. Long-haul diesel trucks produce a disproportionate share of greenhouse gases and other pollutants because they spend a lot of time on the road.
But the industry is divided. Daimler and Volvo, the two largest truck manufacturers in the world, are betting on hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul platforms. They argue that the heavy batteries required to provide acceptable range are impractical for trucks because they subtract too much capacity from the payload.
Traton, the company that owns Scania truck makers MAN and Navistar, argues that hydrogen is too expensive and inefficient, due to the energy required to produce it. Traton, majority owned by Volkswagen, is betting on constantly improving batteries – and on electrified highways.
Traton is one of the backers of the so-called eHighway south of Frankfurt, a group that also includes Siemens and Autobahn GmbH, the government agency that oversees German highways. There are also short sections of electrified road in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg. The technology was tested in Sweden and in 2017 on a mile stretch near the Port of Los Angeles.
So far, sections of motorway with overhead cables in Germany have been short – about three miles long in both directions near Frankfurt. Their purpose is to test the performance of the system in day-to-day use by real trucking companies carrying real goods. By the end of the year, more than 20 trucks will use the systems in Germany.
Enter Mr. Schmieder, who learned to drive a truck in the German Army, and his employer, a trucking company called Schanz Spedition in the small town of Ober-Ramstadt, in a hilly, densely forested area about 35 miles away from Frankfurt. .
If the electronic highway is ever to be rolled out on a large scale, it must work for companies like Schanz, a family business run by Christine Hemmel and Kerstin Seibert, great-granddaughter sisters of the founder. Their father, Hans Adam Schanz, although technically retired, was behind the wheel of a forklift maneuvering pallets in the back of a truck recently as Mr. Schmieder climbed into the cab for his second race of the day by transporting paint to a distribution center in Frankfurt. .
Business is booming, Schmieder said, as the closures sparked a home improvement craze and fueled demand for paint made at a factory near Schanz headquarters.
Daily business briefing
Mr. Schmieder runs the same race up to five times a day. This is the kind of route that eHighway donors consider ideal.
Hasso Grünjes, who is overseeing Siemens’ involvement in the project, said it would make sense to electrify busy roads first, such as the one between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and Duisburg, in the industrial heartland of the Germany ; or the motorway connecting the German ports of Hamburg and Lübeck.
A lot of trucks are just going back and forth between these destinations, said Mr Grünjes. Trucking companies that use the routes would save money on fuel, their highest cost, and easily justify the investment in trucks with pantographs on the roof. In the longer term, according to Siemens figures, 4,000 kilometers of cable motorway, or 2,400 miles, could handle 60% of German truck traffic. Siemens announced Thursday that it will cooperate with German auto parts supplier Continental to mass produce the pantographs.
But it would fall on the German government to build the overhead cables, which cost around 2.5 million euros per kilometer, or about $ 5 million per mile.
The German Environment Ministry, which funds the three electrified highways in Germany, compares the results with studies of trucks using hydrogen fuel cells and trucks using batteries. In three or four years, the ministry said in a statement, a decision will be made on which technology to support.
“Many studies have come to the conclusion that overhead cable trucks, despite the high infrastructure costs, are the most cost-effective option,” the ministry said.
But, responding to questions from the New York Times, the ministry noted that batteries were getting cheaper and better, and charging times were getting shorter. “In the final analysis, the total cost of infrastructure, vehicles and energy will decide which technology or combination of technologies prevails,” the ministry said.
The government is cautious because of the risk that taxpayers will only pay for electrified highways to have the technology shunned by the trucking industry or made obsolete by something else.
“In theory, this is the best idea,” said Geert De Cock, electricity and energy specialist at Transport & Environment, an advocacy group in Brussels. But he said the political obstacles, for example in getting European governments to agree on technical standards, are too formidable.
“It’s more of a coordination issue than a technology issue,” said De Cock. “We don’t support it because we don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Mr. Schmieder, the truck driver, is a believer. He applied for a job at Schanz in 2019, at the start of the test project, so that he could be part of it.
“I’m still very interested in electromobility and where it goes,” he said, as he drove the Scania through a narrow valley that leads from Schanz headquarters to the A5 motorway. The truck, a hybrid with a diesel engine, an electric motor and a small battery, passed a sign for Frankenstein Castle, believed to have inspired the fictional monster.
Shortly after Mr. Schmieder climbed a ramp on the A5, the pylons supporting the overhead cables of the electronic highway became visible. Inside the cabin, the transition was barely noticeable when Mr. Schmieder deployed the pantograph that connects to overhead cables, a so-called catenary system.
The cables also recharged Scania’s battery, which stores enough energy to cover short distances without emissions in city traffic. This is another advantage of the catenary system: The eHighway could eliminate the need for charging stops, which are important in the trucking industry where time is money.
“The infrastructure requires a lot of resources,” Manfred Boltze, professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt, who provides advice and analysis, said by email. “On the other hand, it offers very high energy efficiency and only small batteries are needed for trips beyond overhead cables. “
Mr Schmieder rested his hands lightly on the steering wheel as autonomous driving software held the truck directly under the cables. He and other drivers went through a one-day training program to learn how to use the system and deal with problems, such as an accident blocking the lane ahead. It happened to Mr. Schmieder, he said. It simply got out from under the overhead cables in another lane using the truck’s diesel engine.
There were occasional technical issues. A few times the sensors failed. “But big problems? No, ”said Schmieder.
Technology, pretty much everyone agrees, is not the biggest obstacle to a global network of electric roads.
“We have shown that it can be built,” said Mr Grünjes. “The question now is how to build on a larger scale. “