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Electric Trucks Powering Ahead in Germany

German engineering giant Siemens is powering electric trucks using a 150-year-old technology.

Germans can soon expect to see electric trucks that draw power from overhead wires. Siemens is rushing ahead with tests of the power-saving technology for the country’s roads. Also known as catenary systems, these free-hanging electric power lines have been powering trains and trams since the 1870s.

The system is similar to the one already used to power electric buses in Germany, with the city of Solingen well known for its use of the “trolleybus” as a public transportation mode.  Although still popular in Switzerland and Eastern Europe, trolleybuses have nearly disappeared in Germany, with the exception of Solingen, Eberswalde and Esslingen. Most of them were replaced in the 1950s and 1960s with diesel-powered vehicles.

As part of the project, hybrid trucks with pantographs connected to an overhead power supply will be tested on two motorway sections, both 12 kilometres (7 miles) long, by the end of 2018 according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa). In Sweden and California, similar trial runs are taking place on stretches of highway up to 2 kilometres long.

Countries across the world are constantly looking for ways to manage the growing volume of freight traffic without increasing environmental pollution.  With on-board batteries added to the trucks, the company estimates all of Germany’s roads could be can be outfitted for long-distance electric hauling with just 4,000 km of wire. Trucks would be able to recharge on highways and operate on battery power while on rural and urban streets. The system would cost a fraction the price of alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells, and deliver as much as €200 billion ($227 billion) in net savings over 30 years compared with other approaches.

electric trucks Germany trials

Germany’s electric trucks – could overhead wires be the future of transport of goods by road?

According to a forecast by the German government, railways will only be able to take over one-fifth of the increase in freight traffic between now and 2030. Railways often do not service hard to reach locations or are unable to pick up loads at short notice. Officials expect the bulk of cargo transportation to continue to happen on roadways, and electric trucks could be an effective solution – especially if the electricity comes from renewable sources.

Unlike batteries, the electricity provided by the overhead line will allow for trips over long distances. As is the case with electric trains, power lines for the special trucks will have to be built all the way along the roadways. Once they exit the electrified route, the trucks will drive the rest of the way to their destination with a diesel engine. The goal has to be of course the testing of the concept in regular traffic.

electric trucks Germany overhead power

The pantograph transmits the energy from the overhead contact lines to the electric motor of the truck

According to VDI/VDE Innovation and Technology, a company overseeing the project on behalf of the Ministry of the Environment, they are currently looking for “real delivery routes” used by contractors who are willing to participate.

A spokesman for Germany’s Environment Ministry said two specific test tracks for the trucks to be powered by overhead electric lines had been selected, and their exact locations would be announced in early February.  People privy to the project preparations say the locations are in Schleswig-Holstein and Hesse states. According to an Environment spokesman, “the two pilot lines must be in operation by the end of 2018.”

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