Electric Motorways Will Change the Way Hauliers Plan Routes


Electric Highways Are Almost Here

The Infrastructure could be here sooner than you think, with a new report endorsing the system as a practical and accessible solution to pollution from HGV combustion engines.

According to government figures for 2018, the road freight sector contributes 5% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions. Making heavy goods transport more environmentally sustainable is a priority for the haulage sector and vehicle manufacturers.

But of course, it’s not as simple as converting trucks to electric battery power, as has happened in the consumer vehicle market. The range and power required for heavy loads to travel long distances by road make on-board battery systems unfeasible.

Moving freight onto the railways is unlikely to replace road haulage, because the rail network doesn’t provide consistent UK coverage. Smaller vehicles might distribute onwards from rail hubs, but the expense, inconvenience and complexity of managing this multi-mode approach makes it unattractive for many businesses.


The road freight sector contributes 5% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions


Electric Road Systems (ERS) Are Assessed as Cost-Effective

Now another solution has hit the headlines. The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight reports that overhead charging cables for electric lorries on major freight routes could cut out the majority of carbon dioxide emissions from HGVs.

Siemens has been trialling the overhead cable system recommended in the report. It’s a similar solution to railway overhead electrification. A system of catenaries could be installed on gantries over one motorway lane. Trucks would have a roof pantograph that makes contact with the live power line. They would need an alternative power source onboard to navigate non-electric parts of their route, and when overtaking. The pantograph in Siemens’ system can accommodate movement within the lane. It automatically retracts if the truck needs to overtake or when it leaves the electric route.


Potentially Rapid Roll-Out Means Hauliers Need to Plan Ahead

It’s a potentially exciting development for road freight operators, particularly since the report suggests that the busiest HGV routes could be electrified in the space of just two years, with motorways across the whole UK covered by 2030. Payback looks promising too, both for the infrastructure and the vehicles.

If e-highways are on the horizon, there will be challenges for goods transport operators in route planning. On-board and centralised navigation tools will need to factor in the electrically powered sections of HGV journeys. Will it be more economical to take a longer route, in order to use less conventional fuel and more electrical power? Or will this increase journey times to an unacceptable extent?

What about overtaking? A UK electric motorway system could change driving behaviours. If it’s calculated that manoeuvres off-grid push fuel costs too high, that could affect average journey times. On the other hand, HGV traffic flow might improve, with the vast majority of trucks travelling in one lane at a consistent speed.


Transport Managers Will Need ERS Route Planning Solutions

Smart route planning solutions will certainly be in demand, with the ability to calculate cost per mile in a range of scenarios and provide information that helps logistics managers decide on the best and most cost-efficient routes for vehicles. They’ll need to balance cost with service levels: fuel economy, journey times, delivery windows and driver breaks. They may need to set conditions for going off-grid, for example if there’s an incident that causes excessive delays.

Another e-road technology that’s been successfully tested in Scandinavia is a conductive track system. Induction systems are also being developed. The cost and disruption of digging up the road to deploy these makes them less attractive to governments. For newly built roads, where the technology can be integrated during initial construction, they could make better economic sense.


ERS Has Got Form

If you’ve visited San Francisco or one of several Dutch towns, you might feel that the overhead electric catenary system seems familiar. It’s used to power their zero-emission public transport trolley buses.

The system was also widely used in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. University of South Wales Professor of Transport Stuart Cole says, “It was one of those big mistakes to stop using trolleybuses. They were clean, quiet and the technology would only have improved.” Cardiff’s last trolleybus returned to the depot for good in January 1970.

If electric motorway systems become the norm for long distance haulage, perhaps the same technology could also return to our towns and cities.


If you’d like to see what we can do to help your logistics operations, please get in touch with one of our consultants.