Scania's 2 experimental hybrid trucks are trundling up and down a special section of highway. Photo: Tobias Ohls 2016

Sweden Brings Back the Trolley Truck With a Little Help From Siemens and Modern Technology

Just outside Gävle in Sweden, a 2 kilometer stretch of the E16 motorway has undergone a transformation. While the mid-future offers tantalizing glimpses of wireless inductive charging of autonomous vehicles, the near future it seemed would still be filled with dirty diesel trucks pumping out their particulates. But Siemens, Scania and the Swedish Government have attempted to tackle this problem with a pilot program that sees hybrid bio-diesel lorries that can operate in a purely electric mode powered by overhead lines.

Scania / Siemens G 360 4x2 Hybrid Truck with pantograph on the roof Gävle, Sweden Photo: Tobias Ohls 2016

Scania / Siemens G 360 4×2 Hybrid Truck with pantograph on the roof just outisde Gävle, Sweden [Photo: Tobias Ohls 2016]

his is, of course, essentially the same power system that underlies both trams and trolleybuses, which Brits and Americans might largely believe had gone the way of the dinosaur. After all, with a few notable exceptions (Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC for example) both in Britain and North America the trolleybus has largely died out. But across the rest of Europe, Russia and China, the system remains popular. The hushed tones of the electric bus – even with the crackles from the pantograph – have been considered preferable to the clamorous internal combustion engine.

So it’s not really that surprising to find that in the rest of Europe, the idea of electrifying freeways is considered a pretty normal – and sensible — idea. But this is the first time it’s been attempted – and it’s part of Sweden’s drive to have a fossil-fuel-free and energy efficient vehicle fleet by 2030. Nils-Gunnar Vågstedt, charged with Scania’s electrification research indicated that this will become the “cornerstone for fossil-free road transport services”.

Even if you’re familiar with the idea of a tram or trolleybus to carry passengers about using only the power of electricity, the chances are you might think the idea of doing the same for freight is a new idea. It isn’t however: look back in the history books and you’ll find examples of so-called ‘trolleytrucks” going back more than one hundred years.

Just like so much in our history books however, society has forgotten their load-carrying whines. Now that society is clamoring for a cleaner, greener way to transport goods and people, trolleytrucks could have their day again.

Trolleybusses used to be a common sight in the UK and the US. Image by Alan Murray-Rust, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Trolleybusses used to be a common sight in the UK and the US. Image by Alan Murray-Rust, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Since Siemens was the first company to invent the trolleybus — or Electromote as it was called back then — it seems only fit that it be involved with a modern-day freight-carrying equivalent.

Thanks to modern construction techniques and advanced materials — not to mention computer-assisted placement for the pantograph system — the modern incarnation of the trolley truck is said to be far easier to drive than its 100-year old cousin. And while those early vehicles were temperamental at best, the two test vehicles being jointly developed by Scania and Siemens have plenty of redundant systems ready to step in and take over if the power stops flowing overhead.

First there’s a 5 kilowatt-hour battery pack, capable of shifting the tractor trailer unit around 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) on battery power alone. That might not sound like much, but it’s enough to ensure that the truck can pull off a main route for deliveries and, should it need to, the on-board 9-litre biofuel engine can produce enough electricity to power the truck’s 130 kilowatt electric motor until it can reconnect to its overhead power system.

Currently the plan seems to be that the wires will run above the ‘slow’ lane only – the vehicles having enough charge to overtake if necessary without necessarily having to switch out of electric mode. This should massively simplify the project of electrification. And the trucks can, as you would imagine, switch instantly between power sources should the pantograph become disconnected from the power line.

Currently the overhead wires only run above one lane - which seems to be the long term plan. Photo: Tobias Ohls 2016

Currently the overhead wires only run above one lane – which seems to be the long term plan. Photo: Tobias Ohls 2016

While 2km of electrified freeway may not seem like much, the pilot project is targeted at gaining the kind of in-depth information required for a much larger roll out. And given Sweden’s strong commitment to electrification and reducing fossil fuel usage we can probably expect to see a lot more of these advances in clean motive power.

We should note at this point too that Siemens has been evaluating a similar fleet at the Port of Los Angeles in California, where similar trucks are being used to transport goods around the LA area to lower the carbon emissions associated with the busy shipping port.

And whilst pantographs and overhead wires may not be the most beautiful things in the world, they’re much cheaper to install and maintain than under-road inductive systems; giving Sweden the chance to rapidly introduce low-CO2 transport for heavy goods movement. And of course, this is only a pilot project, it may go no further than 2km. But Sweden wants to be fossil free – and its commitment shows.

Do you think overhead wires are a practical solution? Or should they be concentrating on something else? Let us know in the Comments below.


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  • Chris O

    Not a very elegant solution. Maybe cheaper than to install and maintain than under-road inductive systems but those could also be used by cars so I wonder how that would change the equation.

  • vdiv

    Think electrifying and using trains for long haul transport is a better idea than trucks. Leave the BEV trucks for last mile delivery.

    There are a couple of more places in the US that still have Trolleybuses, San Francisco and Philadelphia. One of the reasons they are not too popular is the length of the routes that most buses have. In Bulgaria they were very popular but unfortunately many cities do not have the funds to maintain the catenary and power systems and many lines have gone out of service.

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