Trucks on the grid: Could rail tech from Europe transform U.S. trucking?

Published January, 23 2014

Alternative fuel vehicles are all the rage these days, and interest in their possibilities for commercial vehicles has not diminished even as prices for traditional fuels continue to fall. Regardless of whether the cost at the pump rises or falls, the demand for fossil fuels continues to escalate. Today’s alternative fuel strategies are all about diverting resources away from the most globally popular fuels – diesel and gasoline – to avoid future price spikes and shortages.

Siemens electric truck 1
Once the diesel-electric hybrid truck has been maneuvered into an eHighway lane, a continuously-monitoring sensor in the truck’s nose detects the presence of the overhead power lines and automatically deploys a prong-shaped wand called a pantograph.
The prong-shaped pantograph wand relay system makes contact with the power lines and acts as a conduit for the electrical power flowing from the lines and directly to the vehicle’s electric motor.
The prong-shaped pantograph wand relay system makes contact with the power lines and acts as a conduit for the electrical power flowing from the lines and directly to the vehicle’s electric motor.
If a driver needs pass a slower truck in the eHighway lane, the system automatically disconnects from the power grid. The system automatically reengages the power grid when the driver returns to the eHighway lane.
If a driver needs pass a slower truck in the eHighway lane, the system automatically disconnects from the power grid. The system automatically reengages the power grid when the driver returns to the eHighway lane.

At the moment, the abundant supply of domestic natural gas in the United States is driving growth for alternative fuel trucks running proven engines and technology, with the limiting factors on more growth being the lack of fueling infrastructure and high acquisition costs.

All-electric vehicles also show some promise in limited applications. Fleets such as FedEx and UPS are experimenting with all-electric delivery vans in urban applications, and these vans already are being used with success in European cities. The main concern in the United States is the relatively short range of the vehicles and the resultant “range anxiety” experienced by both fleets and drivers. On the other hand, all-electric vans use no fossil fuels and don’t produce any emissions – particularly attractive benefits in smog-plagued cities such as Los Angeles or Houston.

Experiments in Germany and California with another type of electric truck soon could have fleets considering another way to move freight. The Siemens company, based in Munich, Germany, has long been a leader in railroad technology, and today the company is taking many of its proven rail components and concepts and rethinking them with a goal toward creating an all-new type of highly-efficient low-emissions commercial vehicle.

A highly flexible system

Siemens calls its concept the eHighway Project – an elegant and sophisticated solution that the company hopes has the potential to revolutionize the way freight is hauled along dedicated eHighway corridors in the United States.

At the heart of the concept is a diesel-electric hybrid truck. Unlike hybrid trucks in the States, this vehicle uses a constant-state diesel engine to drive a high torque-output electric motor – the same principle used to drive diesel-electric locomotives around the world.

In this mode, the Siemens hybrid drive system allows the truck to behave much like a conventional diesel truck: The driver is in control of the vehicle and can change lanes and maneuver on freeways and in tight urban surroundings exactly as he would in a truck today.

The twist comes when the vehicle pulls into a dedicated “eHighway” lane that features overhead electrical lines powered by substations – a technology familiar to anyone who’s been to Europe or a major Asian city and rode the subway or trains there.

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