Scania Starts Trials of Electric Trucks Fed by Overhead Power Lines in Sweden

When it comes to moving large amounts of freight from one part of a country to another, companies usually have to choose between road or rail.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages: trains can carry a huge amount of freight, can be powered entirely by electricity, but aren’t practical for final-mile deliveries. Trucks on the other hand, are far more versatile in the places they can travel, are better suited to smaller loads, and can provide final-mile deliveries absolutely anywhere. Their biggest drawback? They’re fuelled by particulate-producing, heavily-polluting, expensive-to-fuel diesel engines.

Scania G 360 4x2 with pantograph, electrically powered truck at the Siemens eHighway.  Gross Dölln, Germany Photo: Dan Boman 2013

Scania G 360 4×2 with pantograph, electrically powered truck at the Siemens eHighway.
Gross Dölln, Germany
Photo: Dan Boman 2013

But come February next year, Swedish truck maker Scania will begin testing a brand-new truck on a two-kilometre stretch of road between the Port of Gävle and town of Storvik along European highway 16. It might not be capable of long-distance travel as its diesel-powered siblings are, but it offers a clever compromise that could one day make zero carbon freight transportation — or dramatically carbon-reduced freight — a reality.

That’s because the prototype electric hybrid truck is equipped with an overhead pantograph allowing it to feed off an overhead power line, using that electricity to operate in electric-only mode along the specially-named Gävle Electric Road.

It’s a similar system to the one used by tens of thousands of electric trains, trams and trolly busses around the world today, and when combined with an efficient diesel engine, can dramatically improve overall emissions without taking away the key advantage a truck has over a train: the ability to go anywhere.

The project, funded by the Swedish Government to the tune of SEK 77 million and supplemented by SEK 48 million in funding from the local region and local businesses, will use the two kilometre stretch of electric road to investigate how practical the system is in the real world. For the past two years, Scania has been conducting research into the system on a closed track at its research facility near Berlin, Germany, but the Gävle Electric Road will be the first time it has operated trucks in the real world using such a system.

So far, Scania’s tests predicts that using hybrid electric trucks fitted with overhead pantographs rather than pure diesel trucks could reduce fossil fuel emissions by between 80 and 90 percent in some cases, since the trucks would only operate in fossil-fuel mode when exiting major routes fitted with electric cantilevers.

“The potential fuel savings through electrification are considerable and the technology can become a cornerstone for fossil-free road transport services,” said Scania researcher Nils-Gunnar Vågstedt, who leads the Electric Road project. “Electric roads are also a way to develop more eco-friendly transport services by using the existing road network.”

In the case of the Gävle Electric Road, trucks will be using the electric overhead cables to transfer goods the short distance from port to town. A similar project being carried out by Scania and partners between the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach California will duplicate the experiment in the U.S. But while both routes are currently operating over short distances, the end-game of this project could be revolutionary.

Here’s why.

The trucks have so far been tested successfully in Germany a Scania's test facility.  Gross Dölln, Germany Photo: Dan Boman 2013

The trucks have so far been tested successfully in Germany a Scania’s test facility.
Gross Dölln, Germany
Photo: Dan Boman 2013

Because of the limitations of modern battery technology, fully-electric battery-powered trucks are only viable in urban environments, where daily use cycles totals around 100 miles per day and recharging is not a problem. That’s because in order to provide the power needed to haul the heaviest loads over hundreds of miles, trucks would need to devote a large portion of their cab and possibly trailer to battery storage.

Cantilever technology allows trucks to operate as electric vehicles without requiring them to carry large amounts of batteries on-board. Instead, trucks can prioritise electric power where overhead power lines exist while relying on internal combustion engine where it is not available. One day, it may even be possible for some routes to employ all-electric trucks powered by overhead power lines for the majority of their duty cycle while having a small on-board battery pack good for 40 miles or so of electric operation on roads where power lines do not exist.

As battery technology improves, the same overhead power system could be used to allow electric trucks to recharge for longer battery electric operation away from major routes, using the cantilever to receive power on major highways and recharge its battery packs at the same time, but for now, the hybrid powertrain option is a great stepping stone, especially as between 30 and 40 percent of all road-based carbon emissions come from the transportation of freight from one place to another.

Is this the future of trucking?

Is this the future of trucking?

When combined with clean, all-electric rail transportation, this project — if successful — could help relegate smelly diesel-burning big rigs to all but the most inaccessible of places.

And we think that’s a very good thing.

Are cantilever trucks the future of freight transportation? Or are there problems that prevent it from scaling in large countries with literally millions of miles of empty freeways to electrify? Are you a trucker who welcomes the idea or is cautious?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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