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What if the highway was electric? Germany is testing ideas.

Ober-Ramstadt, Germany — Recently, on the highway south of Frankfurt, Thomas Schmider steered a Scania trailer truck and its massive house paint into the far right lane. Then I flicked a switch that most trucks don’t have on the dashboard.

Outside the cab, contradictions began to spread from the roof, like a clothes-drying rack with an upside-down sled welded up. As Schmieder continued to drive, the video display showed that the metal skid was rising and gently pushing the wire running overhead.

The cab became very quiet as the diesel engine stopped and the electric motor took over. Trucks were still trucks, but now they are powered like many trains and trams.

There is debate about how to free the truck industry from emissions, and whether batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are the best way to start electric motors for heavy vehicles. Schmieder was part of the third alternative test. A system that uses wires stretched over the road and a pantograph attached to the cab to supply electricity to the truck as it drives.

At some level, this idea makes perfect sense. The system is energy efficient because it powers the motor directly from the power grid. Batteries tend to be heavy and expensive, and trucks using overhead lines only need batteries large enough to reach their final destination from offramps, so this technology saves weight and money. To do.

And the system is relatively simple. German electronics giant Siemens, who provided the hardware for this test route, adopted equipment that has been used for decades to drive trains and urban trams.

At another level, the idea is insane. Who pays to put thousands of miles of high-voltage electrical cables on the world’s major highways?

Finding ways to eliminate truck emissions is an important part of the fight against climate change and polluted air. Long-distance diesel trucks spend so much time on the road that they create an imbalanced proportion of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

But the industry is divided.World’s largest truck makers Daimler and Volvo are betting Hydrogen fuel cell For long distance rigs. They argue that the heavy battery needed to provide tolerance deducts too much capacity from the payload, making it impractical for trucks.

Traton, the company that owns the truck makers Scania, MAN and Navistar, claims: hydrogen It is too expensive and inefficient due to the energy required to produce it.Volkswagen’s majority-owned Traton is betting Battery that is constantly improving — And on an electrified highway.

Traton is one of the supporters of the so-called eHighway in southern Frankfurt, including Siemens and Autobahn GmbH, the government agency that oversees German highways. Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg also have short sections of electrified roads.This technology has been tested in Sweden and in 2017 1 mile stretch near Los Angeles Harbor..

So far, the section of the highway with the German fictitious cable is short, about 3 miles in both directions near Frankfurt. Their purpose is to test the performance of the systems that real truck companies that carry real goods use on a daily basis. By the end of the year, more than 20 trucks will be using the system in Germany.

Schmider, who learned to drive a truck in the German army, and his employer, a truck company called Schantsspedition in the small town of Ober-Ramstadt, in the hills about 35 miles from Frankfurt. enter. ..

For large-scale eHighway deployments, it must work with companies such as the founder’s great-grandson Christine Hemmel and the family-owned Schanz run by Kerstin Seibert. Their father, Hans Adam Schants, was technically retired, but recently behind a truck when Schmider boarded a taxi for a second run to carry paint to a distribution center in Frankfurt. I was holding the handle of a forklift that steers the pallet. ..

According to Schmieder, the blockade has boosted the enthusiasm for home renovations and increased demand for paints produced at the factory next to Schmieder’s headquarters, which has boosted business.

Schmieder does the same run up to 5 times a day. This is the kind of route that eHighway backers consider ideal.

Hasso Grünjes, who oversees Siemens’ involvement in the project, said it makes sense to first electrify high-traffic routes, such as the route between the Dutch industrial center of Rotterdam and Duisburg. Said. Or the highway connecting Hamburg and the German port of Lübeck.

According to Grunes, many trucks just move back and forth between these destinations. Truck companies that use routes can save on fuel costs, which is the biggest cost, and easily justify their investment in trucks with rooftop pantographs. In the long run, 4,000 kilometers of wired highways (2,400 miles) will cover 60% of Germany’s truck traffic, according to Siemens statistics. Siemens said Thursday it would work with German auto parts supplier Continental to mass produce pantographs.

However, the responsibility for building the fictitious cable lies with the German government, which costs an estimated € 2.5 million per kilometer, or about $ 5 million per mile.

The German Ministry of the Environment, which finances Germany’s three electrified highways, compares the results with research on trucks that use hydrogen fuel cells and trucks that use batteries. The ministry said in a statement that within three to four years it would be decided which technology to support.

“We have come to the conclusion that fictitious cable trucks are the most cost-effective option, despite the high cost of infrastructure,” the ministry said.

However, in response to a question from the New York Times, the ministry pointed out that the battery is always cheaper, better, and has less charging time. “In the final analysis, the total cost of infrastructure, vehicles, and energy will determine which technology or combination of technologies will prevail,” said the ministry.

The government is cautious because taxpayers risk paying for electrified highways just because technology is shunned by the truck industry or obsolete by something else.

“Theoretically, that’s the best idea,” said Geert De Cock, a power and energy specialist at Transport & Environment, a Brussels advocate. But he said political obstacles, such as getting the European government to agree on technical standards, are very difficult.

“This is a coordination issue rather than a technical issue,” DeCock said. “We don’t support it because we don’t think it will happen.”

Schmieder, a truck driver, is a believer. He applied for a job at Shantz in 2019, when the test project started, so he was able to participate in it.

“I’m always very interested in electric cars and where they’re heading,” he said when he piloted Scania from Schanz headquarters through a narrow valley leading to the A5 motorway. A hybrid vehicle with a diesel engine, electric motor and small battery, the truck passed a sign pointing to Frankenstein Castle, which is said to have influenced a fictional monster.

Immediately after Schmieder drove the ramp towards the A5, he saw the pylon supporting the eHighway’s fictitious cable. Schmieder deployed a pantograph that connects to a fictitious cable, the so-called catenary system, so the transition was barely perceptible in the cab.

The cable also recharged Scania’s battery. It stores enough electricity to drive short distances without emissions in urban traffic. This is another advantage of the catenary system. eHighway can eliminate the need for a charge stop, which is important in the truck industry where time is money.

“Infrastructure requires a lot of resources,” said Manfred Bolze, a professor at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, who provides advice and analysis, in an email. “On the other hand, it offers very high energy efficiency and only a small battery is needed for traveling over fictitious cables.”

Schmieder lightly placed his hand on the steering wheel while the self-driving software held the truck directly under the cable. He and other drivers underwent a one-day training program to learn how to use the system and deal with problems such as accidents blocking the lane ahead. He said it happened to Mr Schmieder. He just used the truck’s diesel engine to move from under the fictitious cable to another lane.

Occasionally there is a technical glitch. The sensor has failed several times. “But is there a big problem? No,” Schmieder said.

Technology, as most people agree, is not the biggest obstacle to the global network of electric roads.

“We have shown that it can be built,” Grünjes said. “The problem now is how to build on a larger scale.”

What if the highway was electric? Germany is testing ideas.

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