Siemens Proposes New Way To Power Electric Trucks


Trucks, those road going behemoths that spew millions of tons of diesel related junk into the air every year, are essential to the global economy. If it’s in your home, it probably spent some time being hauled by truck  from the factory to the store where you bought it.


Many believe electric trucks could give the environment a much needed break from all that pollution. But the problem is, a battery large enough to move an 80,000 lb truck 500 miles would weigh 23 tons. Fuel cells aren’t the answer, either. A hydrogen fuel tank large enough power a fully loaded truck that far would cost $2,000,000, according to Quartz. Embedding wireless charging coils in roadways would be hugely expensive, too.

Siemens thinks it has a better idea, and it’s one that goes all the way back to the 1870’s — providing electricity via overhead wires. It made its proposal at the EVS 29 electric vehicle conference in Montreal last week. So-called catenary systems have been powering trains and street cars for over 100 years.

But the Siemens idea has a twist to it. Instead of running wires continuously, it would incorporate a smaller lithium ion battery onboard electric trucks. The battery would be charged by the overhead wires, then the trucks would drive on battery power until the next segment of overhead wires is available.

The technology is ready to go, Siemens says. New advances in catenary systems allow hybrid vehicles to switch seamlessly between overhead charging and battery power at high-speeds. It thinks its system could power all the trucks in Germany using only 4,000 kilometers of wires.

The other advantage of the system is the electric trucks would have enough battery power to drive from the nearest highway into cities without the need of overhead wires. Initially, the trucks would be diesel electric hybrids, but as the system is developed and battery technology advances, trucks would be able to switch over to battery power alone. The system would cost a fraction the price of alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells, and deliver as much as $227 billion in net savings over 30 years compared with other approaches, reports IDTechEx, which attended the presentation.

Siemans, joined by Volvo, Scania, and several national and local governments, is already starting field trials. Sweden launched the first such trucks on public roads on June 22 with its E15 test highway north of Stockholm.

The idea is obviously a compromise solution. Ideally, all trucks would be powered by electricity, but that won’t happen until 2050 or so. The earth simply can’t wait that long for technology to start eliminating the transportation emissions that are poisoning our atmosphere. The Siemens proposal may be just what we need to dramatically reduce heavy truck emissions now while we continue the search for better solutions in the future.

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I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • Shiggity

    The best idea I’ve seen for trucks so far is a natural gas power unit driving the electric motors / batteries.

    Very similar to how the Volt power-train works, just much bigger and using natural gas. The Volt power-train design type is what you want for big things. That design could even work for ships and locomotives.

    Any wired approach is folly. The 21st century is about shedding wires / hiding wires, not adding giant amounts more in plain site. This idea will never work. The wireless version is what you want. Wireless tech is still catching up a little bit, it’s almost there.

    • Burnerjack

      You do realize that NG is cleaner than diesel, but not clean, don’t you?

      • Radical Ignorant

        NG is cleaner, this hybrid burns less of it so it’s much cleaner. But you are right – it’s not forever solution. But it can work in opposite to electrifying all roads. US or UK can’t electrify their railroads and here we are talking about something much bigger. And in some time batteries energy density will be good enough for pure BEV even for heaviest duty vehicles.

    • Radical Ignorant

      It’s not as Volt… or maybe is? I don’t know details of Volt but one of key advantages of solution mentioned by you is that it’s turbine, not ICE, and it’s basically one speed turbine working in optimal speed. And it can be bigger (more effective) than on small Volt.

  • I’ve been saying this for decades, not that I deserve any credit for it, the concept is indeed 100 years old.

    Other variations that could be combined with this would be to have a towing cable attach to the road that also charges the batteries either directly or with regenerative breaking. Swapping the battery while driving is also doable.

    If we stick with 100 year old technology we should also remember tram rails as tires are supper inefficient and cause air pollution. Rails would also makes self-driving trucks a lot more reliable.

    If we make the rubber wheels retractable it would look totally science fiction, as if we are in the future. (rather than in the past)

    That elevated train from china driving above normal traffic also seems cool. We could just park the trucks in that and deliver them in remote locations while charging.

    Most fun in my view would be to have horses on a treadmill with a gear box. Or elephants depending on the location.

  • Hridayesh Gupta

    This shows a lack of confidence in the progress of many technologies. 23 tons for 500 miles argument is valid when cost of human drivers are involved. Most of the goods do not require time critical deliveries. A two hour delay can be planned.

    With self driving, 4.5 tons for 100 miles becomes manageable. No software will ever complain about having to recharge 5 times on the way, to deliver goods to Walmart.

    • rogerbedell

      Good point Hridayesh. The main reason trucks are so large now is to minimize the number of drivers needed since the driver is a big part of per mile cost, and once in a while in order to carry long objects. Several small driverless trucks may be easier to route and manage vs one large one. For example, we just moved, and we had to wait for a combined load because we didn’t have enough stuff to fill an entire truck. I imagine this often happens in industry.

      However, wind resistance is lower with one big truck vs several small ones. Also, it might be easier to stick with larger trucks for long haul because the entire road shipping infrastructure is built around that size (loading docks etc).

      Likely there will be a range of sizes, from 4.5 to 23 tons, with many more smaller ones as you point out since the driver is no longer a limiting cost factor.

      Another factor to consider is that with driverless trucks one of the main cost advantages of rail over road is taken away from rail. A long double stack train only has a few staff, while the equivalent number of trucks has hundreds. With driverless trucks and trains, this is equalized. Thus, you can expect that a switch from road to rail will not materialize, in fact, it may well reverse because of the simpler logistics of point to point trucking.

      This means that our efforts to electrify long haul road transport needs to intensify further. But as you say Hridayesh, stopping every 100 miles to charge is not an issue for automated vehicles. Plus, a truck stop full of automated chargers is a whole lot easier and cheaper to build than the Siemens EHighway, and can be located near a high power access point to the grid.

      • Steve Hanley

        You two have given this a lot of thought and both make excellent points. One question — how do people make a living once machines do everything for us? Won’t there simply be too many people at some point?

        • Hridayesh Gupta


          That is a simple question to answer. People confuse employment with prosperity. As civilization progresses, people need to work less and less for the same incremental prosperity. Work done is system inefficiency towards the desired goal(my physics teachers will like to withdraw my grades). Even today, those who work hard, get paid the least. It is the efficiency which counts.

          In future, most of the people will live in happy cities with a prosperity level unheard of today and no responsibility towards earning it. There will be a bunch of braniacs driving the progress required.

          Do not count these happy city dwellers as free loaders, think of them as the inheritors of the accumulated wealth of technological advances starting from invention of wheel through whatever is the bleeding edge of technology at that time.

      • Hridayesh Gupta

        I have serious concerns about investments in new rail infrastructure. As you have stated, road to rail shift may not happen. My contention is that road to rail shift is a folly and will create lots of stranded assets once the automated driving and cheap electricity arrives at the scene.

  • doubleducks

    Natural gas engines are the answer for efficient, clean power for heavy trucks. Electrical power has its place in smaller vehicles but it is not the answer for all transportation needs.

    • Joe Viocoe

      CleanER, yes…. Than diesel or gasoline counterparts.
      Not even close on efficiency when compared to electric.

  • I think the best way to go would be a battery pack to do passing and on and off the highways.

  • Radical Ignorant

    Not fan of this idea. Make infrastructure even more expensive. And what with maintaince and other out of service periods?
    If there was nothing better I could ahree that this is way to go.
    But according to some in 30 years battery density will reach thise of gasoline. So in 30 years we can have BEV tractors and other heavy duty machines. In meantime LPG turbine + electric motor and battery buffer seems much smarter and much more doable. You don’t need to build huge infrastructure and you don’t have chicken and egg problem.