Will the autobahn become an eHighway for electrically operated trucks?

The test route for the first German eHighway is scheduled to be complete at the end of 2018, with the first overhead catenary system for electrically operated trucks to be tested in real traffic on autobahn 5 between Langen/Mörfelden and Weiterstadt starting in 2019. Pilot project ELISA (a German acronym for electrified, innovative heavy goods transport on the autobahn) lead by the Hesse State Street and Traffic Management Authority is part of the German-wide “Climate Action 2020” campaign, which promotes the testing of electrical drives in heavy commercial vehicles. Additional test routes are planned in two further federal states in Germany.
“Electrically operated trucks are an especially efficient solution on the path to climate-neutral freight transport,” states Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary of the Federal Environmental Ministry. Each of the three pilot routes has its own road and traffic characteristics. In Hesse, we are testing the system on one of the most frequented sections of the autobahn in all of Germany.” Majorly significant to freight traffic is the route where five kilometers of the right lane will be electrified in each direction, as a connection to CargoCity South of Frankfurt Airport in particular. The system is set to be integrated into real transport chains: Several freight and logistics companies want to complete their regular transports on the test route with electric trucks, including HEAG mobilo AG, Ludwig Meyer GmbH & Co. KG and Raiffeisen Waren-Zentrale Rhein-Main eG among others.
The eHighway is intended to make freight transport on the road more sustainable and environmentally friendly. In recent years, Siemens tested the technology on the private Groß Dölln test track in Brandenburg.
Siemens AG has been commissioned with the construction of the overhead catenary system for electrified road freight transport. The core element of the system is a smart pantograph combined with a hybrid drive system. Sensors in the truck roof detect whether the vehicle is located below an overhead line. Pantographs installed in the roof of the driver’s cabin are then extended, supplying the truck’s motor with electricity. At the same time, the on-board battery is charged. The pantograph is a further development of the proven system found in trains. If the overhead line ends or a truck wants to pass and leaves its lane, either the battery or a diesel generator kicks in. The connection to the overhead catenary system is established or disconnected automatically in ongoing traffic without having to lower the vehicle’s speed.
“The eHighway is the first economically feasible solution for climate-neutral road freight transport. Our technology today presents a real alternative to truck transportation with combustion engines,” states Roland Edel, Head of Technology of the Mobility Division at Siemens. The eHighway is twice as efficient as conventional combustion engines, meaning the operated trucks would only consume half as much energy as diesel trucks.

But there are critics of the plans to electrify road freight transport: The Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) holds the opinion that it would be too expensive and time-consuming to electrify the autobahn. They also claim that railroads already present an intelligent alternative to long-distance trucks. Considering the high investment costs, it is unlikely that the concept of the eHighway will be implemented nationwide any time soon. According to Stefan Dörfelt, Head of Product Management at online forwarding company Frachtraum, trucks supplied with electric power by overhead catenary systems could be useful on commute routes between harbors, factories or transfer points.

Text by Benjamin Klare
Photos and infographics: Siemens