Is the Road of Tomorrow Electric?

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Future trucks and buses may not rely on bulky batteries but instead power lines embedded into the road surface, according to Swedish automaker Volvo which is actively conducting research on road power lines.

Volvo has been doing research in Sweden that supplies buses and trucks with continuous electric power without carrying large batteries. Instead, power lines are built into the surface of the road, as seen in the figure. The company feels this could be a future solution for long-distance trucks and buses running on electricity.

The Volvo Group already has extensive knowledge about electric drivetrains, but in order to become world leading in sustainable transport solutions, the Volvo Group must find even more solutions that allow the vehicles to operate on renewable energy. A great deal of this energy will be distributed as electricity. However, the challenge is about supplying the vehicle with electricity power when needed.

“In city traffic, there are currently various solutions and we are researching many others. We have field tests in progress where our plug-in buses are equipped with a battery that can be charged quickly when the buses are at bus stops,” says Mats Alaküla, the Volvo Group’s expert on electric vehicles and Professor at Lund University.

But for long-distance trucks and buses, this will not work. They stop infrequently and to cope with this task they would need so many batteries that there would be no room for any loads or passengers. A solution is required where power is continuously supplied to the truck from an external source.

The Volvo Group participates in a large Swedish research project to find solutions for this, with the support of the Swedish Energy Agency. The project includes the Swedish Transport Administration, Vattenfall, several universities, vehicle manufacturers and suppliers.

The method currently being developed and tested by the Volvo Group, together with Alstom, entails two power lines built into the surface of the road along the entire length of the road. A current collector in contact with the power lines will be located on the truck.

“With this method, electric vehicles could be continuously supplied with power without carrying large batteries,” says Mats Alaküla. “The power line will be built in sections and one section is only live as the truck passes.”

Last year, Volvo built a 400-meter long track at its testing facility in Hällered outside Gothenburg. The company has been testing the system since last autumn.

“We are currently testing how to connect the electricity from the road to the truck. The electricity flows into a water-cooled heating element, with similar power requirement as an electricity-driven truck,” says Richard Sebestyen, who is the project manager at Volvo Group Trucks Technology, which is the Volvo Group’s research and development division.

However, a great deal of research still remains before this can become a reality. It involves the continued technical development of the current collector, electric motor and the control systems required. It also involves road construction, road maintenance, electricity supply along the roads and various payment models, etc.

“A lot of years remain before this is on our roads,” says Mats Alaküla.

“But, if we are to succeed in creating sustainable transport systems, we must invest significantly in research now. I am convinced that we will find a cost-efficient way to supply electricity to."

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