Near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, South Alameda Street is typically filled with trucks–and smog. But a one-mile stretch of the trucking route is now also a demo site for new electric highway technology.
Overhead, a system of overhead wires–similar to those used for electric streetcars–supplies power. Three big-rig trucks, equipped for the pilot, use equipment mounted on top to automatically reach up to connect to the wires and run on electricity.
“To have the road electrified and have these heavy trucks electrified is just far more efficient from the perspective that you don’t waste fuel, you save energy because the electric motor is far more efficient than the gas motor, and you have no emissions at all,” says Andreas Thon, the head of turnkey projects and electrification in North America for Siemens, the company that developed the “eHighway” system.
For freight companies, using electric trucks can also reduce operating costs. “Diesel motors require a lot of maintenance, and the electric motor is more or less maintenance-free,” Thon says.
Siemens argues that electric trucks running on batteries alone are not yet feasible, because the batteries can’t generate enough power to move heavy loads very far (though an upcoming announcement from Tesla about a new electric semi may prove otherwise). The German company also manufactures electric bus infrastructure, which can recharge buses at bus stops in cities. But for larger trucks traveling longer distances, Siemens says that recharging isn’t feasible.
“Because [the trucks] are so heavy, I think they would only run for a few miles and then it would take them another 30 minutes or one hour to charge batteries so that they can go another distance,” Thon says. “With this technology, you permanently feed energy into the truck.”
Unlike a streetcar, the trucks can also easily disconnect from the overhead wires if they want to change lanes and pass another vehicle, running on either battery power or a hybrid engine. Siemens is also developing technology that could power electric vehicles from beneath a road, but says that it’s at an earlier stage, and more expensive to build. The overhead chargers, however, could be expanded now.
“You need to make a business case, but I’m convinced that there are many other locations, apart from this one in Los Angeles, where it would be really worthwhile to install these kinds of projects,” Thon says. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which partnered on the test near the ports, is considering whether to extend the pilot beyond the end of this year, and whether to expand the technology to a longer stretch of road.
In California, if it grows, the technology could be one piece of the state’s plan to shift to an emissions-free freight system by 2050. Heavy-duty trucks are already the leading source of smog-forming emissions in Southern California, and, without a change, the problem will get worse; by 2050, freight transportation in the U.S. will likely double.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Siemens makes electric bus infrastructure, not electric buses.