Much has been discussed about the superiority of electric vehicles (EVs) to conventional internal combustion vehicles, but the rhetoric hits a snag every time the topic of charging comes up. A significant chunk of the EVs on the roads today struggle with charging on-the-go, and are forced to make elaborate plans on their charging schedules and stick to routes that offer EV charging stations on the sideline.
This is a ubiquitous problem with EVs, as however big the battery gets, there is only so much of charge it could hold before it runs out. And even with a futuristic prospect of having charging stations at specific intervals across all the major highways of a country, EV owners still need to contend with waiting times that could be frustratingly long, compared to taking a quick detour to a gas station like with conventional vehicles.
The answer to this predicament might lie on the roads itself. An ambitious project has now been unveiled in Sweden where electric trucks can charge themselves while moving on the road. The technology has now been opened over a 1.25-mile stretch, on a road connecting the Stockholm Airport and a logistics site nearby.
“The unique thing about this project is that it is the first one to be out on public roads. This also is the first road that provides for charging on the road and not through overhead wires,” said Hans Sall, chairman of the eRoadArlanda consortium. “We are charging the rail track every 60 meters. It is only feeding the rail when a vehicle authorized to pick out electricity moves over the road. Thus electricity is not turned on 24×7, but only when a vehicle is passing by.”
Though the concept of having an electrified track on the road might sound perturbing to the uninitiated, Sall insisted that there is absolutely no risk involved. He alluded to the tracks on the road to be like a socket on the wall. The electricity runs five or six centimeters below the road, and it can only be reached via a connector that protrudes from beneath the moving truck.
“Also, the rail is only electrified for 50 meters in front of the moving vehicle, and there is no electricity on the surface. We tested by flooding the road with salt water and measuring the electricity, which was less than one volt. So you can go barefoot without any danger,” said Sall.
The road laid out now still serves as a demonstration stretch, and has had just one truck move over it, converted to suit the requirements to draw electricity. Plans on extending the track commercially are in the pipeline, with the intent of hauling goods from the Arlanda airport to the logistics terminal, a couple of miles away.
Even before the public demo stretch was built, eRoadArlanda had been testing the technology in a closed area over the last six Swedish winters. The tests helped in perfecting the system under different weather conditions and in understanding the problems that it could run into after it becomes a public utility.
One of the crucial problems to be addressed is keeping the tracks usable under all possible conditions. “If you have gravel, leaves, or even snow in the track, most of it is cleaned by the connector itself. We know that in the winter time when we have a lot of snow packed in the tracks, we can use standard plowing equipment on the road without any problem,” said Sall. “There also is a heating cable that will melt the snow, and we have drainage every 50 meters on the rail. So we can handle this, but if needed, we have modified the standard maintenance equipment with brushes, a small plow, and a vacuum pump.”
Sall also addressed the concerns over the feasibility of making a connection with the track when a truck is moving at high speeds over the road. “There is a magnetic sensor built in the connector. It senses the rail automatically and goes down to connect and charge the vehicle. In the same way, it will go up if the truck leaves the track, without the driver doing anything,” he said.
As the next step, the Swedish government is looking to lay a longer stretch – to around 15 to 20 miles in a couple of years. Sall mentioned that there are discussions with private companies that could take this forward, especially the ones that stand to benefit from such roads. The government has also started partnering with the German and French government, to take this technology forward across continental Europe.
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