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Electric Trucks and ‘eHighways’

Greg Devine


Red Speeding Semi Truck on the European Highway. Transportation Industry.

We’ve been told many times that electric vehicles are the future. With climate change being a huge issue and, as oil is predicted to run out within most people’s lifetime, an alternative had to be found.

The UK will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, which may sound years into the future until you remember we’re already in 2022—it’s actually only eight years away.

The campaign for us all to purchase and drive electric cars only covers light vehicles. So, where does this leave heavy good vehicles?

They are set to be phased out by 2040. However, simply using the same technology as electric cars have would not work. The batteries required in HGVs would have to be huge to be anywhere near viable. Other options are needed.

We may already have the solution, albeit in a different form, that will enable us to move goods across the country’s road system: trains! Electric trains have been around for more than a century, and this same technology could be used to electrify the lorries of the UK. Using a pantograph and overhead wires, HGVs could drive along the road whilst taking power directly from the national grid. This may sound like a mad idea, but it’s not something I’ve just made up. It’s currently being trialled in Germany, in the state of Hesse, on a 10km stretch of the autobahn. Overhead wires have been installed in the first lane only, which appears to be the most practical position. The HGV raises its pantograph and drains power from the grid whenever it’s in lane.

You may be wondering what happens when the lorry needs to overtake a slower moving vehicle. When activating the indicator, or when the lorry senses it’s moving out of lane one, the pantograph automatically lowers. From that point, it depends on the vehicle’s set-up. It could use electric power stored in its batteries until it re-joins the electrified lane—or, as a hybrid vehicle, it could use a classic combustion engine. This engine wouldn’t need to be a traditional diesel one either; biofuels could be employed as an alternative.

The initiative in Germany is going relatively well and more roads are being considered. But could we repeat this in the UK? Our roads are very different to Germany’s, and our motorways lack the efficiency of their autobahns; however, we do have relatively straight two- to four-lane roads. The government are conducting a feasibility study on whether the UK should try an electrified motorway; the M180, which connects North-East Lincolnshire to Doncaster, has already been outlined for such a trial.

Overhead cables for electric vehicles

Overhead cables for electric vehicles

This all sounds great for the environment, but what are the negatives? Firstly, the government would see a hole in their budget from what could be a significant loss of fuel tax; however, there’s talk of this hole being plugged by a similar tax for users of the overhead wires. Secondly, the wires wouldn’t look very pretty, but no one sees a motorway as a thing of beauty, so I don’t think this would be much of an issue. These advanced vehicles would need to be purchased initially, but their cost would be offset, says Siemans, by the cost savings on diesel. They estimate that a switch would pay for itself in just over a year. Thirdly, new vehicles wouldn’t need to all be replaced immediately; distribution firms would be able to swap their fleet gradually.

One downside is that installing overhead wires across major roads would prove a massive, timely project. The impact of this work on current traffic has yet to be calculated, but it doesn’t take a genius to know it would hugely disrupt the flow of vehicles using the motorway whilst the technology is put in place.

When you look at the project overall, the short-term pain would clearly be insignificant to the long-term gain. We could finally make heavy goods vehicles green and sustainable. Germany, by electrifying just a third of its highways, would cut the country’s HGVs’ production of greenhouse gases by approximately two-thirds. The technology clearly works—Germany has proved that through its trials over the past couple of years. There is also an incentive for logistics companies to switch to this method, not that they would have much choice; the cost savings involved would allow them to be more profitable.

The UK Government has a decision to make. They’ve already invested in a feasibility study, so they clearly have some interest in the project. Once the results of this study come back, the trial would likely begin, between Doncaster and Lincolnshire. At this point, the negatives of the initiative may become more apparent, not least via the significant roadworks appearing across major trunk roads in the North.

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