June 28, 2022

OBER-RAMSTADT, Germany – Thomas Schmieder recently maneuvered his Scania semitrailer, complete with paint, into the right lane on a motorway south of Frankfurt. Then he flipped a switch that you won’t find on most truck dashboards.

Outside the cab, a device began to unfold on the roof that looked like a clothes horse with an upturned sled welded on top. As Mr. Schmieder drove on, a video showed how the metal runners rose and gently pressed against the wires running above him.

The cabin became very quiet when the diesel engine failed and electric motors took over. The truck was still a truck, but now it was powered like many trains or trams.

There is a debate about how the trucking industry can become emission free and whether batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are the best way to crank electric motors in large vehicles. Mr Schmieder was part of a test of a third alternative: a system that provides trucks with power while they are in motion, with wires lined up across the lane and a pantograph mounted on the cab.

On one level, the idea makes perfect sense. The system is energy efficient as it delivers electricity directly from the power grid to the motors. The technology saves weight and money, as batteries are usually heavy and expensive and a truck with an overhead contact line only needs a sufficiently large battery to get from the exit to the destination.

And the system is relatively simple. Siemens, the German electronics giant that supplied the hardware for this test track, adapted devices that have been used to drive trains and urban trams for decades.

On another level the idea is insane. Who will pay to lay thousands of kilometers of high voltage cables over the world’s major highways?

Figuring out how to make trucks emission free is a critical part of fighting climate change and dirty air. Long-distance diesel trucks cause a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases and other pollutants due to their long journey times.

But the industry is divided. Daimler and Volvo, the two largest truck manufacturers in the world, rely on hydrogen fuel cells for long-distance rigs. They argue that the heavy batteries required for acceptable range are impractical for trucks because they draw too much capacity from the payload.

Traton, the company that owns truck makers Scania, MAN, and Navistar, argues that hydrogen is too expensive and inefficient because of the energy needed to make it. Traton, majority owned by Volkswagen, relies on ever better batteries – and on electrified highways.

Traton is one of the supporters of the so-called eHighways south of Frankfurt, which also includes Siemens and Autobahn GmbH. There are also short electrified road sections in the federal states of Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg. The technology was tested in Sweden and in 2017 on a 1.6 km stretch near the port of Los Angeles.

So far, the motorway sections in Germany equipped with overhead lines have been short – around five kilometers in both directions near Frankfurt. They should test how the system behaves in daily use with real freight forwarders that transport real goods. More than 20 trucks will be using the systems in Germany by the end of the year.

Enter Mr. Schmieder, who learned to drive a truck with the German Armed Forces, and his employer, a forwarding company called Schanz Spedition in the small town of Ober-Ramstadt, in a hilly, densely wooded area about 55 km from Frankfurt.

If the eHighway is ever to be rolled out on a large scale, it has to work for companies like Schanz, a family business run by Christine Hemmel and Kerstin Seibert, sisters who are great-grandchildren of the founder. Her father Hans Adam Schanz, although technically retired, was recently at the wheel of a forklift maneuvering pallets into the back of a truck when Mr. Schmieder got into the cab for his second trip of the day to deliver paint to a distribution center in Frankfurt transport .

Business is doing well, Schmieder said, because locks have sparked a DIY craze and fueled demand for paints made in a factory next to Schanz’s headquarters.

Daily business briefing

Updated

Aug. 2, 2021, 6:49 p.m. ET

Mr. Schmieder does the same run up to five times a day. The supporters of eHighways see such a route as ideal.

Hasso Grünjes, who oversees Siemens’ participation in the project, said it would make sense to electrify heavily used routes first, such as the one between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and Duisburg, in Germany’s industrial heartland; or the motorway that connects the German ports of Hamburg and Lübeck.

Many trucks only drive back and forth between these destinations, said Grünjes. Truck companies using the routes would save money on fuel, their biggest cost, and easily justify investing in pantograph trucks. In the longer term, according to Siemens, 4,000 kilometers of cable-bound motorways would take up 60 percent of German truck traffic. Siemens announced on Thursday that it would be working with German auto supplier Continental to mass-produce the pantographs.

However, the German government is responsible for the construction of the overhead lines, which cost an estimated 2.5 million euros per kilometer or about 5 million US dollars per mile.

The Federal Environment Ministry, which promotes the three electrified motorways in Germany, is comparing the results with studies on trucks with hydrogen fuel cells and trucks with batteries. In three or four years, the ministry said in a statement, a decision will be made on which technology to support.

“Numerous studies have come to the conclusion that overhead lines are the most cost-effective option despite the high infrastructure costs,” said the ministry.

In response to questions from the New York Times, however, the department found that batteries are getting cheaper and better and that charging times are decreasing. “Ultimately, the total cost of infrastructure, vehicles and energy will determine which technology or combination of technologies will prevail,” the ministry said.

The government is cautious about the risk that electrified highways taxpayers will only pay for the technology to be shunned by the trucking industry or rendered obsolete by something else.

“In theory, that’s the best idea,” says Geert De Cock, electricity and energy specialist at Transport & Environment, an interest group in Brussels. But he said the political obstacles, such as getting European governments to agree on technical standards, were too daunting.

“It’s more of a coordination problem than a technology problem,” said Mr De Cock. “We don’t support it because we don’t believe it will happen.”

Mr. Schmieder, the truck driver, is a believer. He applied to Schanz in 2019 when the test project began to be part of it.

“I’m always very interested in electromobility and where it’s at,” he says as he steers the Scania through a narrow valley that leads from the Schanz headquarters to the A5 motorway. The truck, a hybrid with a diesel engine, electric motor and small battery, passed a sign to Frankenstein Castle, which is said to have inspired the fictional monster.

Shortly after Mr. Schmieder had driven up a driveway to the A5, the masts of the overhead lines of the eHighway came into view. The transition was barely noticeable in the driver’s cab when Mr. Schmieder used the pantograph that connects to the overhead lines, a so-called overhead line.

The cables also charge the Scania’s battery, which stores enough energy to drive short distances in city traffic with zero emissions. This is another advantage of the overhead contact line system: The eHighway could make charging stops superfluous, which are important in the trucking industry, where time is money.

“The infrastructure requires a lot of resources,” says Manfred Boltze, professor at the TU Darmstadt, who advises and analyzes, via email. “On the other hand, it offers very high energy efficiency and only small batteries are required for journeys beyond the overhead line.”

Mr Schmieder put his hands lightly on the steering wheel, while autonomous driving software held the truck directly under the cables. In a one-day training program, he and other drivers learned how to use the system and how to deal with problems such as an accident blocking the lane. That happened to Mr. Schmieder, he said. He simply steered the truck’s diesel engine out from under the overhead lines into another lane.

Occasionally there were technical breakdowns. Several times sensors have failed. “But big problems? No, ”said Mr. Schmieder.

Technology, almost everyone agrees, is not the biggest obstacle to a global network of electric roads.

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