April 12, 2024

Three experiments can help make large trucks electric

Three experiments can help make large trucks electric

With a new EPA rule aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from the largest class of trucks in the US, companies are experimenting with overhead cables and wireless road charging

Overhead cable lines, wireless charging paths and battery swapping are three exploratory technologies to drive the electrification of the trucking industry.


Alex Kraus/Bloomberg via Getty Images

CLIMATE THREAD | A climate rule for trucks released last week by the Biden administration has put new pressure on makers of major rigs to reduce their carbon pollution.

The industry could take cues from experiments electrifying semi-trucks with overhead cables or wireless charging paths, or by swapping batteries at highway pit stops.

The EPA rule is expected to decarbonize about 17 percent of the largest class of trucks in the U.S. within eight years — a big test for vehicles that travel long distances with heavy loads.

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“Electrifying trucks is a much bigger challenge than replacing a combustion engine car with an electric car,” said Arjun Thangaraj Ramshankar, a Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has studied the feasibility of using overhead cables for freight transportation.

Here are three experiments to keep an eye on as the freight industry undertakes a $1 trillion transition away from diesel fuel.

Overhead cables

Truck manufacturers could turn to a 140-year-old technology used worldwide for city trams, passenger trains and public buses: overhead lines.

The so-called eHighway in Lübeck, Germany, and another pilot project near Los Angeles will allow hybrid and electric trucks to draw power directly from the grid through pantographs that extend from their roofs to overhead cables. When they need to change lanes or leave the highway, the pantographs automatically retract and the trucks switch to engine or battery power.

“We just laid those cables on roads instead of railway lines, and that’s the only difference,” Ramshankar said in an interview. “The setting is new, but the technology is the same.”

Anna Köhn, who is managing public relations for the German project, said cables offer advantages over plug-in charging, adding time to accessing chargers. It also gives drivers a dedicated lane or lane, allowing them to avoid unpredictable traffic conditions, and means they can keep moving while their batteries charge.

But there are disadvantages. The biggest obstacle is setting up the poles, hanging the cables and connecting to the electricity grid. The German Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport estimates that overhead cable infrastructure on highways costs around $2.7 million per kilometer.

“A lot of money goes into setting everything up before you can run trucks along the route,” Ramshankar said.

He co-authored a 2023 study that found that trucks running on overhead cables would typically produce less CO2 emissions over their lifetime than conventional electric trucks. The economies are similar and depend largely on how widely the technologies are adopted, he said.

Wireless charging paths

Anyone who charges their phone wirelessly is familiar with inductive charging, a technique that uses electromagnetic induction to power a device. Israel-based Electreon is now scaling up that technology to power electric vehicles from under the road.

The company is testing inductive charging lanes for heavy-duty electric trucks in Sweden and Utah, plus several electric passenger car projects in Europe, Israel and Detroit.

Electreon said it broke the world record in 2023 for “the longest time and distance ever driven by a passenger electric vehicle” when it drove a Toyota RAV4 Prime to travel 1,200 miles for 100 hours on an inductive charging circuit built by the company in Israel. Company officials hope inductive charging can alleviate range fears that keep some drivers away from electric vehicles.

But just as phones charge slower wirelessly, wireless charging roads can struggle to support heavy trucks. The Toyota RAV4 tested by Electreon is one-fifteenth as heavy as Tesla’s electric semi with a fully loaded trailer, and a think tank white paper warned that inductive charging may not provide “enough inductive power needed to drive heavy-duty trucks.” .

Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, an industry group, thinks overhead cables and inductive charging paths “would make sense in certain places,” but he expressed concerns about the cost of both technologies.

The one-mile inductive charging road in Detroit cost $5.9 million, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Electreon did not respond to a request for comment.

Change battery

Roeth is more hopeful about an easier way to charge electric trucks: replacing gas stations with areas where a dead battery can be exchanged for a fully charged one. “You build more batteries than trucks, and instead of charging the batteries quickly, you replace the battery quickly,” Roeth said.

China favors this approach, known as battery swapping. About half of the electric trucks sold in the country in 2022 were designed for practical use.

Still, changing batteries comes with its own set of complications. Roeth sees three main challenges in practice: the cost of the additional batteries, ensuring a consistent standard of care for those batteries, and potentially smaller batteries that are easier to move. That could reduce the range of a truck with one load.

Roeth says he’s unsure what the future of trucking will look like and which electrification technology will prevail. Yet he is convinced that “basic efficiency will never go out of fashion.”

When Roeth meets truck drivers and fleet owners, he advises them: “Don’t bet against batteries.”

Reprinted from E&E News courtesy of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environmental professionals.

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