Scania electric trucks for the German ‘eHighways’ research project
Technology

Electric trucks: the next big thing?

Technology

Electric trucks: the next big thing?

May 7, 2019

Diverse drive technologies that support the battery are being tested to enable electric trucks to travel long distances. The results are promising: a look at the current state of development.

Discover here:

  • Why 2019 is the year of the electric truck
  • Why conventional lithium-ion batteries are inadequate for electric trucks
  • Which alternatives exist
  • What options are already being tested?

Starting aid from the state: subsidies to accelerate development

Elektro-Lkw auf der Autobahn

2019 is the year in which electric trucks will take a major step forward – at least that is what the German government is planning. Since the beginning of the year, electric trucks have been exempt from the truck toll as an incentive for all companies to increase the use of environmentally conscious transport vehicles. And not only that: since last summer, the Federal Ministry of Transport has subsidised every electric truck with up to 40,000 euro.

If you look at the development of truck traffic in recent decades, you can see convincing arguments in favour of state subsidies: according to the Federal Environment Agency, road freight traffic increased by 89 percent between 1991 and 2016. The EU Parliament has decided that manufacturers need to reduce the emissions of new trucks by 20 percent by 2025 and by 35 percent by 2030. However, this ambitious goal can only be achieved if large numbers of local zero-emission electric trucks will soon be on our roads.

Engineers and companies have long been working on more environmentally conscious trucks for the future. In 2018, renowned manufacturers presented prototypes with electric motors at the International Motor Show for Commercial Vehicles. Since then, feasible models have also been developed in collaboration with researchers. At the end of 2018, the researchers at RWTH Aachen University presented a 7.5-tonne truck as part of the ‘LiVe 1’ project. This is based on the ‘StreetScooter’ concept, which is already in use as a parcel delivery vehicle. The light truck, however, is only the beginning. Electrically powered medium and heavy truck models should also be used to supply supermarkets in cities, for example.

The Federal Government is not only creating incentives but is also playing an active role the implementation: since last October, ten different trading and logistics companies have been testing a 25-tonne fully electric truck on behalf of the Government. These test trucks travel between 150 and 300 kilometres per day. However, this is still not enough for the truly large tasks because many haulage companies have long-distance routes exceeding 1000 kilometres; for example, when large trucks transport Bavarian alpine milk to the far north in one run. Today's batteries still lack the necessary capacity to enable the fully loaded 40-tonne trucks reach to their destination without stopping to recharge. Therefore, the most urgent question is: how can the challenge of supplying electric trucks with energy over long distances be solved? Four scenarios are conceivable here:

Scenario 1: More battery power for electric trucks

The great challenge in the development of heavy electric trucks is that they push the current lithium-ion batteries to their limits. At the end of 2018, the researchers at RWTH Aachen University presented a 7.5-tonne truck; a design for vehicles up to 18 tonnes will soon follow. However, the more range a battery has, the larger and heavier it becomes. According to a study, a battery that can cover a distance of 1000 kilometres without charging would weigh more than 16 tonnes alone - a weight that would have to be deducted from the payload. That is why the hopes of the manufacturers rest on the further development of the battery technology. However, it looks as if there is still a long way to go before the classic 40-tonner is feasible if one relies exclusively on the lithium-ion battery. Alternative ideas are needed to drive the trucks.

Scenario 2: Hybrid drive with hydrogen

Nikola Tre electric truck
A factory for the ‘Nikola Tre’ does not yet exist. The first prototype will be presented in April 2019 and road trials are scheduled to begin in 2020. 

The fuel cell represents a promising idea for an alternative. Vehicles with fuel cells generate electrical energy from hydrogen and convert it directly into motion. At the RWTH Aachen, a team of engineers is currently developing an 18-tonner with this technology. The US start-up, Nikola Motor, has already impressively demonstrated how powerful vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells are. In 2018, the company presented a hydrogen-powered electric truck with a promising range of around 1600 kilometres. The model for the European market is called ‘Nikola Tre’ has only slightly less range. The Volkswagen subsidiary, Scania, has also been testing three three-axle vehicles with fuel cell drive systems since summer 2018.

Scenario 3: Overhead cables

Scania electric trucks with overhead cable
A truck like a tram: in central Sweden near Gävle (pronounced Yävle) a test with electric trucks designed to operate using overhead lines has been running since summer 2016.

Resourceful developers have copied another approach from the railway to transform electric trucks into a long-distance runner: to ensure that the electric truck receives sufficient power on long journeys, individual sections of the motorway will be upgraded with an overhead line to create electric highways. The electric trucks can then use current collectors to connect the cables while driving in order to recharge and reduce the demands on the battery.

In Sweden, Germany and Italy, tests are already under way using overhead contact lines on motorways. One example is the two-kilometre section of the E16 motorway outside the Swedish city of Gävle, which has been in operation since June 2016. Scania trucks equipped with a Siemens current collectors are on the road there. These electrically powered trucks can reduce fossil fuel CO2-emissions by 80 to 90 percent. Since last November, the first hybrid trucks have also been operating on the roads in Germany. There are about 230 masts on the first German five-kilometre test track on the A5 between Darmstadt and Frankfurt. The electrification of long-distance freight traffic will also be tested on the A1 between Lübeck and Reinfeld. Scania will also supply vehicles for the three German test tracks in 2019. With the option of charging while driving, the batteries become smaller and lighter the longer the electrified part of the route is.

Scenario 4: Rail in the ground

Electric truck eRoadArlanda
In Sweden, electric cars charge while driving on conductor rails that are laid below the asphalt surface.

In another test scenario, the electricity is supplied to the electric truck from below. Near Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, rails have been embedded approximately ten centimetres deep in the roadway on a test track and supply the electric truck with electricity. The necessary current collector is located on the underbody of the vehicle. With the help of GPS and magnets, it locates the track to guide its sliding contacts into the slots. The highlight of the story: both trucks and cars can be equipped with this system so that it can be used for different types of vehicles with electric motors.