Transport innovation of the week: electric roads

For a few years I’ve been featuring a building of the week, looking at innovative low carbon buildings. This year I’m challenging myself to do something similar with transport. As I described recently, emissions from transport aren’t falling fast enough, and the biggest problem is road traffic. Politicians have been reluctant to take on car culture, so there’s a real need for good ideas around sustainable transport and mobility.

Let’s kick off with this idea from Scandinavia. One of the obvious ways to reduce transport emissions is electrification – switching from combustion engines to electric vehicles, replacing diesel trains with electric trains and so on. Provided they can run on renewable energy – either immediately or eventually, then there will be a considerable carbon saving.

Air pollution is also a growing concern, rising rapidly up the agenda in Britain and elsewhere, with diesel vehicles a particular problem. Diesel cars can be phased out, but it’s much harder in heavy goods vehicles. That has led to an interesting experiment in Sweden, where the first electric road was installed last year.

Turning to a 130 year old technology first used with trams, hybrid HGVs have been fitted with pantographs – roof-mounted pick-ups that can draw power from overhead wires.

Electric road hybrid truck, Scania G 360 4x2 (Hybrid Truck with Siemens pantograph on the roof) Gävle, Sweden Photo: Tobias Ohls 2016

The truck can connect while on the move, so it just has to drive under the wires and raise the pantograph, much like a train does. It is then running on electric power, with zero carbon emissions – until it comes off the 2km test section, and then the biodiesel engine kicks in again.

Among the benefits of this approach is that it can be fitted to existing roads without too much trouble, and it only needs to cover one lane. The downside is that only HGVs with electric motors can use them, and there aren’t many of those yet. There’s growing interest in them though as more cities try to clamp down on diesel pollution – a hybrid HGV can run on diesel until it reaches the city, and use electric for the final mile downtown. And it really is the final mile – Scania’s hybrid can only do 2km on its batteries, as it takes so much power to move the weight. It’s a technology that would make a lot more sense if the trucks were able to use their electric capacity on the open road as well.

It’s too early to tell whether anything will come of this, as it’s just being tested at the moment. If it goes well, it may be fitted to more roads in Sweden, and Norway is also interested. But there are competing technologies, and other ways to create an electric highway, so we shall have to see how it performs.


  1. Hello Jeremy. An interesting article in yesterday’s Observer about diesel emissions from cruise ships, as well as the car/lorry traffic they generate while in port. Apparently they also keep their engine(s) running whilst in port, which can be for several days. Southampton experiencing particular problems apparently

  2. Electric HGVs – the overhead cables would be especially useful up long hills, like Shap.
    Could they recharge their batteries from these, as well as via regenerative braking?
    Could truck trailers be made a little longer in order to carry a big battery (or fuel cell) so extending range further?

    1. All worth exploring, I should think! So far an all-electric HGV hasn’t been viable, as it’s impossible to compete with the range of diesel lorries. BMW made an all electric truck a couple of years ago, but it could only go 60km. Any more than that, and you’re packing the vehicle with battery weight instead of freight.

      I think a hybrid model is going to be better, especially if you can use wires or induction charging so that you don’t need to carry the battery capacity. And maybe best of all, transition back towards rail freight and reduce the need for HGVs in the first place.

      1. There are limits to how much goods traffic you can put on the railways. Firstly, railways only really work for trainload amounts. Smaller loads are much better on lorries going point to point. The old pick up goods and huge marshalling yards were terribly slow and inefficient.

        Secondly you can have a railway optimized for passengers with short frequent fast trains or a freight railway with long slow trains such as the USA.

  3. I cannot imagine the size of battery required for an electric cruise ship, bulk carrier etc. But I can imagine a ship carrying some other form of energy storage (eg a giant flywheel or liquified hydrogen). Presumeably various shipping research organisations around the world are already looking into this)

  4. I cannot imagine a pure electric HGV; they have to be plug in hybrids as you say, or fuel cell. Freight by rail is of course preferable but so many places are not and never will be on railway lines. The lorry will have to supply heavy haul all over the country for far into the future, I’m afraid and unless diesel / carbon taxes increase considerably, replacing the diesel truck with something as cost-effective will be hard. I don’t like the idea of biodiesel as so much will be required and unless it is made via algae on rooftops or something, it will adversely impact food production / biodiversity.

  5. This can be combined with a trolleybus network in a city as long as compatible systems are used but I suspect they wouldn’t play nicely in cities that have tram overhead already.

    1. Indeed, a new take on an old idea, and that’s an intriguing collection of images. Most previous applications have either been urban transport or big earth-moving sites such as mines or dam construction sites, so the difference here is electrifying highways. Though I can see a couple of open roads among those images, so perhaps Sweden can’t claim a true world first after all.

      Good point on integration with trolleybuses. Plenty of European cities and a handful of US cities could still look into that. Nothing left in Britain unfortunately.

      1. Electrification is easier in urban areas for the same reasons it is for railways ( commuter railways were electrified well before mainlines). The longer distances require far more capital to build the power supply.

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