Electric motorways will transform the haulage industry 

Robin van den Berg explains the use of electric motorways, weighing up the pros and cons compared to other climate-friendly alternatives

The haulage sector is under the watchful eye of the world as it seeks to find a way to reduce the harmfully high levels of emissions it currently produces. Battery electric and hydrogen power are the most discussed alternatives to internal combustion engine (ICE) trucks, but there is a third option currently being trialled in Frankfurt, Germany, that seems to be turning heads.

Automotive World Magazine – January 2022

The system, backed by the likes of Siemens, Autobahn GmbH and truck maker Traton is surprisingly simple, and borrows well-established technology used by trams. The hardware effectively turns a truck into an electric tram. On top of the truck’s cabin sits a set of electrical contacts, much like you’d see on top of a tram. These connect to electrical lines suspended over the road.

Trucks that use electric motorways will be cheaper, lighter and will require no refuelling, but this system requires significant costly changes to public infrastructure

When the truck engages the contacts, it can draw electricity directly from the grid to power its onboard electric motors. The truck’s diesel engine can disengage, and then the wagon becomes a zero-emission hauler. The beauty of this system is that it requires no bleeding edge technology.

While the jury is still out on battery electric and hydrogen powered trucks, this system of electrified roads is effectively already proven in that it’s used by trams and trains. What’s more, this isn’t the first test of its kind. Similar trials have been conducted in Sweden, Los Angeles, and in other parts of Germany.

e-Highway trucks from Scania
The first German electric road test track near Frankfurt with catenary overhead lines became fully operational in 2020 with five Scania R 450 hybrid trucks equipped with pantographs

Trucks must go zero-emission if we’re going to address climate change. According to figures shared by Transport and Environment, trucking accounts for 22% of all CO2 produced by the transport sector. Bear in mind that just 2% of the vehicles on the road are trucks. Their impact on emissions, and the environment, is disproportionately large. Indeed, any way to reduce emissions in the trucking sector is a good thing. Battery electric, overhead electric or even hydrogen power all possess the potential to achieve this goal.

Battery trucks don’t require any changes to infrastructure, but will be expensive, take a long time to charge and add excess wear to roads. Hydrogen trucks will be lighter and able to refuel in minutes like conventional wagons, but making hydrogen isn’t easy or cheap. Trucks that use electric motorways will be cheaper, lighter and will require no refuelling, but this system requires significant costly changes to public infrastructure.

The beauty of this system is that it requires no bleeding edge technology

Currently, it is hard to say whether this test in Germany will be a success. Battery technology and green hydrogen infrastructure is improving but is some way off being at the point to service demand.

The systems that prove their worth in terms of cost efficiency will ultimately be the ones chosen by the industry and politicos. Currently, the German government is not revealing too much on the progress of the tests. What it has said is that they will decide in four years what technology will reign supreme. Right now, it appears that overhead powerlines have the edge.


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Robin van den Berg is Product Manager, EV, at TomTom

The Automotive World Comment column is open to automotive industry decision makers and influencers. If you would like to contribute a Comment article, please contact editorial@automotiveworld.com

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