Germany experimenting with eHighway for electric trucks

by John Tenpenny

Through the system developed by Siemens, a hybrid truck’s electric drive is powered through an overhead line via a pantograph.

LEIPZIG, Germany – Early efforts to electrify trucks have largely involved plugging into charging stations or filling fuel cells with hydrogen. But one initiative in Germany seems to have more in common with a street car, drawing energy from overhead wires.

A new electrified eHighway for trucks, developed by German conglomerate Siemens, allows hybrid trucks to charge their batteries while traveling at speeds of up to 90 km/h.

The hybrid truck’s electric drive is powered through an overhead line via a pantograph. While the overhead line (OH) truck is connected to the overhead line, it operates with its electric motor and simultaneously charges its battery. Drawing on the energy stored in the battery, the OH truck can continue operating electrically and emissions free after leaving the overhead line on the highway. And in case the battery is nearly depleted, the truck can continue its journey using its diesel engine.

It’s ultimately meant to support the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“The most cost-effective measure to decarbonize road freight in Germany would be to build 4,000 kilometres of electrified highways,” said Patrik Akerman, head of eHighway business development for Siemens Mobility, during a presentation at the International Transport Forum Summit in Leipzig, Germany. More than 1,000 participants from more than 70 countries took part in that event to discuss, exchange and define transportation-related challenges and policies.

Citing a 2018 study by Federation of German Industries (BDI), Akerman said the costs could be covered by 11% of existing road tolls paid by trucks, and that 80% of trucks would then have an incentive to switch from diesel to electric.

“[This] innovation combines the advantages of electrified rail lines with the flexibility of road freight transport, thus offering an efficient, economical and environmentally compatible alternative to truck transport with combustion engines,” said Roland Edel, CTO at Siemens Mobility.

A 10-kilometre stretch of the A5 autobahn between the Frankfurt airport and a nearby industrial park was equipped with the related system late last year.

Sixty percent of heavy-duty vehicle (HDV) emissions occur on only 2% of the German road network, according to the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI). So changes on the busiest routes can have a significant impact on emissions. Not only that, 80% of German trucks travel less than 50 km off a highway, the ministry says.

“If 30% of German trucks use this system, it would save 7 million tonnes of CO2 annually,” said Maximilian Eichhorn, global head of strategy and business development with Siemens Mobility.

“Traffic levels are rising around the world and this is true for freight transport and we need to manage CO2 emissions. Our industry is ready to supply new technology to support these goals to reduce our CO2 footprint while meeting the increased traffic demand, of which our eHighway system is a great example.”

According to Siemens, the technology would save a 80,000-lb. truck $30,000 in fuel costs over 100,000 km.

Testing will continue until 2022, after which a decision will be made on whether or not to expand the project, which has so far cost the government $21 million. Two more eHighway tracks are already being built. One is in the northern region of Schleswig-Holstein, the other is in Baden-Württemberg, in southwest Germany.

The country also spent $105 million to make a special hybrid truck with Scania and Volkswagen.

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