Siemens uses old technology to power new electric trucks


German engineering company Siemens has persuaded the Swedish government to trial a 1.25-mile stretch of ‘eHighway’ north of Stockholm, using overhead cables to power trucks with electricity.

So-called catenary systems, which have been powering trams and trains (and dodgem cars) around the world for almost 150 years, transfer energy through overhanging wires directly to vehicles on the road[1].

Teaching old tech new tricks

If the idea of something akin to a lightning conductor sprouting from a truck’s roof sounds a bit archaic, well, perhaps it is – but then so are electric vehicles! The electric car was actually invented in the 1830s by a Scotsman, Robert Anderson (or arguably by American Thomas Davenport)[2], but it wasn’t until French physicist Gaston Planté built the first rechargeable lead-acid storage battery that they really took off[3].

By 1900, 28 per cent of the 4,192 cars produced in America were electric. However, within two decades electric vehicles had ceased to be commercially viable and had been superseded by petrol-powered cars (Henry Ford’s revolutionary Model T had begun production in 1908).

Battery? Parked…

Today, electric trams and locomotives still trundle through the streets of cities as far apart as Berlin, San Francisco and Manchester, following their tracks below and their power lines above. In fact, it was Siemens that created the world’s first electric railway with an external power source – so the new trial in Sweden is truly its own technology repurposed for the modern age[4].

Siemens believes that its eHighways will solve a problem that has flummoxed the transport and haulage industry for a while now – how to run heavy freight vehicles, upwards of 40 tonnes, on electricity[5]. The power required to propel such a weight is enormous, and there does not yet exist a commercially viable battery able to take on the job.

In fact, according to the trend-watchers at Quartz, “With today’s technology, driving a semi-truck 500 miles (804 kilometres) would require a 23-ton lithium-ion battery.”[6] Whereas with an eHighway, of course, lorries would not need to account for any such extra weight, nor the space inside that one would take up. In bypassing the battery and instead looking up, Siemens is showing blue-sky thinking.

Breath of fresh air

The other ecologically friendly alternative for freight lorries is hydrogen fuel cell technology. The reason Siemens is testing its catenary system instead is cost; according to market researcher IDTechEx, eHighways could save as much as €200 billion over the next 30 years if the test proves successful[7]. But what about roads without power lines? Well, Siemens and truck manufacturer Scania have developed hybrid trucks that will run on diesel, or even a charged battery, when not hooked up overhead.

“The eHighway is twice as efficient as internal combustion engines. This means that not only is energy consumption cut in half, but also local air pollution is reduced,” says Roland Edel, Chief Technology Officer of Siemens Mobility. “The electric hybrid is the first step on the road to electrically powered vehicles that will come to play an increasingly important role in the development of sustainable freight transport.”[8]

Obviously, the technology is still at its early stages, but should the pollution-busting hybrid electric vehicles be a success, Siemens could hit Sweden’s ambitious target of having a successful alternative fuel transport sector by 2030.

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