What Would Happen If Highways Were Electric? Germany Tests The Idea.


OBER-RAMSTADT, Germany — On a motorway south of Frankfurt recently, Thomas Schmieder turned his Scania tractor trailer and load of house paint into the far right lane. Then he pressed a button that you won’t find on most truck boards.

Outside the cabinet, a mechanism resembling a clothes drying rack welded up from the ceiling began to open up. As Mr. Schmieder continued to drive, a video footage showed the metal sleds rising upwards and gently pushing against the overhead cables.

The cabin became very quiet as the diesel engine stopped and the electric motors kicked in. The truck was still a truck, but now operated like many trains or streetcars.

There is a debate about how to make the trucking industry emissions-free and whether batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are the best way to power electric motors in large vehicles. Mr. Schmieder was part of testing a third alternative: a system that powers trucks while they are in motion, using wires stretched over the roadway and a cab-mounted pantograph.

On one level the idea makes perfect sense. The system is energy efficient because it transmits power directly from the electrical grid to the motors. The technology saves weight and money, as batteries tend to be heavy and expensive and an overhead cable truck only needs a large enough battery to get from the ramp to its final destination.

And the system is relatively simple. German electronics giant Siemens, which provided the hardware for this test route, has adapted equipment used to drive trains and city street cars for decades.

The idea on another level is insane. Who will pay to haul thousands of miles of high-voltage power cables up the world’s major highways?

Figuring out how to make trucks emission-free is an important part of tackling climate change and polluted air. Long-haul diesel trucks produce a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases and other pollutants because they spend so much time on the road.

But the industry is divided. The two largest truck manufacturers in the world, Daimler and Volvo, hydrogen fuel cells for long haul towers. They argue that the heavy batteries required to provide acceptable range are impractical for trucks as they extract too much capacity from the load.

Traton, owner of truck manufacturers Scania, MAN and Navistar, hydrogen It is very expensive and inefficient because of the energy required to produce it. Traton, which is mostly owned by Volkswagen, ever-evolving batteries – and on electric highways.

Traton is among the backers of the so-called eHighway south of Frankfurt, a group that includes Siemens and the government agency Autobahn GmbH, which oversees German highways. There are also short electrified road sections in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg. The technology was tested in Sweden and in 2017 One mile long near the Port of Los Angeles.

So far in Germany, sections of motorways equipped with overhead cable are short – about three miles long in both directions near Frankfurt. Their aim is to test how the system performs in daily use by real truck companies that transport real goods. By the end of the year, more than 20 trucks will use systems in Germany.

Enter Mr. Schmieder, who is learning to drive in the German army, and his employer, Schanz Spedition, a trucking company in the small town of Ober-Ramstadt, in a hilly, densely forested area about 35 miles from Frankfurt. .

If the e-highway is to be built on a large scale, it has to work for companies like Schanz, a family business run by the founder’s grandchildren, Christine Hemmel and Kerstin Seibert. Although their father, Hans Adam Schanz, is technically retired, recently Mr. Schmieder was behind the wheel of a forklift loading pallets into the back of a truck as he climbed into the cabin for his second run of the day to transport paint to a distribution center in Frankfurt. .

Things are lively, Mr Schmieder said, because curfews have sparked a home improvement spree and fueled demand for paint produced at a factory adjacent to Schanz’s centre.

Mr. Schmieder does the same run up to five times a day. It’s the kind of route that eHighway’s supporters consider ideal.

Hasso Grünjes, who oversaw Siemens’ involvement in the project, said it would make sense to electrify heavily traveled routes first, such as between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and Duisburg, the industrial heart of Germany; or the motorway connecting the German ports of Hamburg and Lübeck.

Mr. Grünjes said that a large number of trucks do nothing but travel back and forth between these points. Truck companies using the routes will save their biggest cost, fuel, and easily justify the investment in trucks with roof pantographs. In the longer run, the 4,000 kilometers or 2,400 miles of cable highways will accommodate 60 percent of German truck traffic, according to Siemens figures. Siemens said Thursday it will collaborate with German auto parts supplier Continental to mass-produce the pantographs.

But the German government would be responsible for constructing the overhead cables, which cost an estimated 2.5 million euros per kilometer, or about 5 million dollars per mile.

The German Ministry of the Environment, which funds three electric motorways in Germany, is comparing the results with trucks using hydrogen fuel cells and trucks using batteries. In three or four years, it will decide which technology to support, the ministry said in a statement.

“Multiple studies have concluded that overhead cable trucks are the most cost-effective option, despite high infrastructure costs,” the ministry said. Said.

However, answering questions from The New York Times, the ministry noted that batteries are getting cheaper and better all the time, and charging times are decreasing. “In the final analysis, the total cost of infrastructure, vehicles and energy will decide which technology or combination of technologies will prevail,” the ministry said.

The government is cautious as taxpayers risk paying for electric highways only for technology that will be avoided by the trucking industry or made obsolete by something else.

“In theory, this is the best idea,” said Geert De Cock, an electrical and energy expert at Transport & Environment, an advocacy group in Brussels. But he said the political hurdles, such as European governments reaching agreement on technical standards, are very intimidating.

“This is more of a coordination issue than a technology issue,” said Mr. De Cock. “We don’t support it because we don’t think it will happen.”

The truck driver, Mr. Schmieder, is a believer. He applied for a job at Schanz in 2019, when the test project started, so he could be a part of it.

“I’ve always been very interested in electromobility and where it’s going,” he said as he drove Scania through a narrow valley from the center of Schanz to the A5 motorway. The truck, a hybrid with a diesel engine, electric motor and a small battery, passed a sign showing Frankenstein Castle, which is said to have inspired the fictional beast.

Shortly after Mr. Schmieder climbed a ramp to the A5, posts supporting the e-Highway’s overhead cables appeared. Inside the cabin, the passage was barely perceptible as Mr. Schmieder placed the pantograph connected to the overhead wires, called the catenary system.

The cables also recharged Scania’s battery, which stores enough power to drive short emission-free distances in city traffic. This is another advantage of the catenary system: eHighway can eliminate the need for charging stations, which is important in the trucking industry where time is money.

“Infrastructure requires a lot of resources,” said Manfred Boltze, a professor at Darmstadt Technical University who provides advice and analysis, by email. “On the other hand, it provides very high energy efficiency and only small batteries are needed for journeys beyond overhead cables.”

Mr. Schmieder put his hands lightly on the steering wheel as the 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 issues such as an accident blocking the lane ahead. “This happened to Mr. Schmieder,” he said. Using the truck’s diesel engine, he went under the overhead cables to another lane.

There were technical glitches from time to time. Several times the sensors failed. “But big problems? No,” said Mr. Schmieder.

Almost everyone agrees that technology is not the biggest obstacle to a global electrified road network.

“We have shown that it can be done,” said Mr Grünjes. “The question now is how to build it on a larger scale.”


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