Charging electronic vehicles while they on the move is not a new idea. In fact, in Vancouver, BC, the entire public transit system runs on a series of electronic lines that power the buses. And in French cities, the entire tram system runs on a wireless system, one which is six million kilometers in length. In the former case, the buses are kept in contact with power lines overhead, while the latter uses metal bars running underneath.
Applying the same concept, Volvo has designed a new highway system in Sweden that will keep electric cars running on long-distance trips. Led by Mats Alaküla, researchers are looking at these types of “conductive charging,” both where vehicles would stay in continuous contact with the power supply. Both methods are being tested on the new system, which consists of a 400-meter track near Gothenburg.
Behind the research is the assumption that an electric car’s batteries will not provide the required range for long-distance driving, especially where long-haul trucks are concerned. City driving is one thing, but in order for electric vehicles to expand beyond urban centers, bigger and better methods need to be devised.
Alaküla says the important part of the second system is “the pick-up” – i.e. the connector between the vehicle and the ground. Unlike trams that stay in a fixed position, this line needs to be able to compensate for cars and trucks changing lanes. He describes the set-up as an “industrial robot sitting upside down”, though it more akin to a robotic arm.
The arm moves a meter each way to compensate for movement within the lane, and retracts when the driver changes lanes, redeploying once they’ve back on the track. As Alaküla describes it:
If you imagine two lanes, the power system would be in the right lane. The pick-up keeps in contact with the supply, until you keep moving sideways. Then, the truck will go to the battery. When you go back, it automatically identifies the track, and reconnects.
And for those who worry that electric tracks are going to make highways unsafe for pedestrians, Alaküla insisted that the system only electrifies sections of the track when vehicles pass at a certain speed. To electrocute yourself, a pedestrian would need to step out in front of a fast-moving vehicle, which would kind of render the whole thing moot!
So far, trucks have been able to get up to speeds of 80 km/h (50 mph) on the Volvo stretch, and Alaküla expects the work to continue for another year before his team takes the concept to a full road. Eventually, he thinks the concept could be used for anything bigger than a motor-bike – from cars and buses to different types of trucks.
And they not alone in their research efforts. Volvo’s rival Scania are themselves testing technology based on inductive charging where the charge is transferred via an electromagnetic field and does not require physical contact. Between these three methods and other emerging technologies that seek to make highway driving “smart”, the future of long-distant driving is likely to become a much cleaner, more efficient affair.