Keep on Trucking (But Plug Them In, Add Drones, and Make Them Autonomous)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 02, 2017

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—If you’ve ever been to Europe and seen the decidedly unusual sight of buses—and trolley cars—connected to overhead wires, then you’ll appreciate the new scheme being pursued in both Germany and Sweden. They’re fitting long-haul hybrid trucks with similar setups, and running them on zero-emission electricity. And these “eHighways” are soon coming to the U.S., too, in a California-based demonstration project.

Borrowing a page from electric trains, these eHighways have overhead electric lines. (Siemens photo)

The eHighway concept makes total sense to run along high-traffic truck corridors—in some cases, just 10 percent of the highways carry 50 percent of the tractor-trailers. That’s just one of the cool ideas for the big rigs I heard here at the International Transport Forum, a showcase for greening all forms of moving people and stuff.

The electric Vision Van had--instead of a grille--an animated electronic display board. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Two other concepts I encountered here are similarly awe-inspiring. Mercedes-Benz showed off its Vision Van, tomorrow’s drone-equipped transporter with automated package delivery. And a company called CargoBeamer unveiled an emission-friendly vision for moving standard truck trailers on rail—the same way standard ship containers are handled today. And don’t forget trucks traveling in connected convoys, or operating fully autonomously—as Volvo’s Anders Kellstrom says is already happening with the company’s vehicles in mining operations.

This Scania truck connects to electric highways. (Jim Motavalli photo)

First, the eHighway, which is a joint project of German giant Siemens, Swedish truck maker Scania, and an alphabet soup of government agencies. It’s up and running since last year in a 1.2-mile demonstration project in Gavleborg, Sweden, with a second project that will explore charging from the road itself. A German system is under development.

According to Magnus Ernstrom, the local project manager in Sweden, the 80 to 85 percent efficient eHighway is now in use with two diesel hybrids, but could work equally well with electric or fuel-cell trucks, and would easily adapt to self-driving vehicles, too.

Here's the "pantograph" at the top of the truck, which rises up to meet the electric lines. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The concept is simple enough, explains Patrik Akerman of Siemens. The truck approaches the wired section of highway, and a so-called “pantograph” on the roof of the truck rises to meet the wires. As long as the trucker stays in the lane, the system will stay connected and run on grid electricity. It quickly retracts when the highway ends, with no need to stop or even slow down the truck.

It’s expensive, something like $2 million a mile, but nobody’s suggesting wiring every foot of highway. Siemens estimates the cost of adding the overhead charging to the most heavily traveled truck corridors in Germany at $5.6 billion, which doesn’t sound like so much when the country’s road and infrastructure budget through 2030 is $292 billion. It’s doable.

Sweden's Magnus Ernstrom explains the virtues of eHighways. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jens Hugel, the sustainable development head of the International Road Transport Network, is a naysayer, claiming that the system is far too expensive to build and maintain (not to mention outfitting the trucks), will interfere with roadside emergency services, and might not even be that green if the grid has dirty coal in it.

But Ernstrom and other supporters shrug this off, and claim the system could actually pay for itself if the truckers are charged for the electricity. The next step, with Siemens and Mack hybrid trucks, is a $13.5-million demonstration project in Carson, California (near Long Beach). The two-mile long “catenary” system will be installed on I-710, with support from California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District.

A BMW i3 shows its colors at the International Transport Forum. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“Southern California’s air pollution is so severe that it needs, among other strategies, zero- and near-zero emission goods movement technologies to achieve clean air standards,” says Barry Wallerstein of the agency.

Mercedes' van uses these made-in California Matternet M2 drones. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Mercedes’ Vision Van was unveiled at CES without much access, but in Leipzig they let us climb all over it. It’s a well thought-out concept for package delivery that is almost fully autonomous. Inside the van is two rows of vertical shelving, and they slide out and in, to be loaded outside the truck. The driver can arrive and pick up two fully loaded racks. At the first delivery location, automation delivers the correct package through a slot. It can either be delivered by hand or, if its light enough (under two kilos) by one of the two roof-mounted and California-made Matternet M2 drones. This is a solution for the “last mile” delivery problem you may have heard about.

Inside the Vision Van. The two sets of shelves slide out to be loaded outside the car, and can be pre-loaded for quick turnarounds. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The third solution I saw proposed here in Europe was the aforementioned CargoBeamer, whose director, Hans-Jurgen Weidman, hit us with some brutal facts: The German autobahns have 694,000 bottlenecks every year, causing 420,000 hours of delays (and $28 billion in costs). And traffic is projected to get worse, with only very small growth in road capacity.

The truck drops the trailer off, and it shuttles onto a train with CargoBeamer's technology. Just press the "OK" button on the tablet. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Despite these headwinds, compounded by a serious driver shortage, the trend to moving goods by truck, rather than rail—at 72 percent now—is also expected to increase. And in part because of all those diesel-spewing trucks (with ill-paid drivers often living in their vehicles), Germany is unlikely to meet its goal of a 40 percent carbon reduction for transport by 2030.

The vast majority of truck trailers (90 percent) are not designed to be moved around by cranes, as containers are. Only 17 percent of German cargo travels by rail. The CargoBeamer concept is to load standard truck trailers on rails in an automated process we saw demonstrated in Leipzig. The truck backs the trailer into a designated slot near the tracks, and it is then automatically shunted onto a rail car. The 15-minute process reverses on the other end, and the driver delivers the cargo to its final destination. It’s highly mechanized, but it’s a pretty simple concept. And initiated by a single click on a tablet.

It’s a small company, with modest operations—daily trains connect Cologne with Milan via the Swiss alps. But it could grow quite large, considering the benefits. Per year, the process is supposed to save $4 million in maintenance, accident and emissions avoidance per train, per year.  Weidman said he has the U.S. on his screen, but hasn’t made a move on the huge North American market yet.

Finally, there’s a growing awareness that tomorrow’s trucks will be automated, and that’s basically a good thing in terms of efficiency and reducing congestion. But according to an International Transport Forum report released at the conference, self-driven trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by 50 to 70 percent circa 2030. And that would mean that 4.4 million of the current 6.4 million trucking jobs could disappear.

“Even if the rise of driverless trucks dissuades newcomers from trucking,” the report said, “over two million drivers in the U.S. and Europe could be directly displaced.” A number of the many government ministers at the Leipzig conference brought up the specter of displaced truck and taxi drivers, and there was a lot of talk about retraining programs and other options.

It’s clear, if evidence were needed, that there will be winners and losers with the new and exciting mobility options. Take another look at the Vision Van, on video:

Here's more on eHighways:

And about how CargoBeamer's technology works:


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