Automotive

Volvo's electric roads concept points to battery-free EV future

Volvo's electric roads concept...
Volvo's Richard Sebestyen with the current collector connected to the rear of the test truck
Volvo's Richard Sebestyen with the current collector connected to the rear of the test truck
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Volvo has been testing the technology at a 400 meter-long test track in a facility in Hällered near Gothenburg since last year
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Volvo has been testing the technology at a 400 meter-long test track in a facility in Hällered near Gothenburg since last year
Mats Alaküla, Volvo Group’s expert on electric vehicles and Professor at Lund University, believes that electric roads will prove to be a cost-efficient way of supplying constant power to trucks and buses
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Mats Alaküla, Volvo Group’s expert on electric vehicles and Professor at Lund University, believes that electric roads will prove to be a cost-efficient way of supplying constant power to trucks and buses
Volvo's Richard Sebestyen with the current collector connected to the rear of the test truck
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Volvo's Richard Sebestyen with the current collector connected to the rear of the test truck

While quick charging technology installed at strategic points along a planned route might be a good fit for inner city buses, it's not going to be of much use to electric vehicles that stop infrequently. Volvo sees our future long-haul trucks and buses drawing the juice they need from the road itself, making large onboard batteries a thing of the past.

In addition to making a commitment that will see each new generation of diesel engine be more efficient than the last, Volvo is also actively engaged in EV research and development. As a member of a large research project, along with the Swedish Transport Administration, Vattenfall, Alstom, other vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, and several universities, the company is looking at ways to supply constant power to long-haul vehicles from an external source.

You could just fill up the precious cargo space of trucks and buses with enough batteries to make a long, non-stop journey, but where would you put the goods or passengers? Volvo, however, has something else in mind.

Along with power generation and transport firm Alstom, the company has constructed a 400 meter (1,312 ft) -long track at a facility in Hällered near Gothenburg, to test a truck fitted with a special collector that draws its power from rails installed into the surface of the road. It's an adaptation of technology that's been successfully used to supply electricity to trams in several cities around the world since 2003, and could help reduce an electric vehicle's dependence on big battery banks.

Volvo has been testing the technology at a 400 meter-long test track in a facility in Hällered near Gothenburg since last year
Volvo has been testing the technology at a 400 meter-long test track in a facility in Hällered near Gothenburg since last year

The two power rails/lines run along the road's entire length. One is a positive pole, and the other is used to return the current. The lines are sectioned so that live current is only delivered to a collector mounted at the rear of, or under, the truck if an appropriate signal is detected. As an additional safety measure, the current flows only when the vehicle is moving at speeds greater than 60 km/h (37 mph).

"The vehicle is equipped with a radio emitter, which the road segments can sense," explains Volvo's Per-Martin Johnansson. "If an electric vehicle passes a road segment with a proper encrypted signal, then the road will energize the segments that sense the vehicle."

The truck being used as a test bed for the project is a standard Volvo FH12 tractor sporting a diesel engine. There's no electric motor installed at the moment. When the collector comes into contact with the power lines, 750 V of direct current is delivered and routed to a water-cooled heating element, that has a similar power requirement to an electrically-driven truck. The collector has been designed to track the power rails, even when the vehicle is not directly over the middle of the contact lines.

The present phase of the project, which is supported by the Swedish Energy Agency, is set to come to a close soon, but Volvo is already discussing the next logical step. This will see the installation of an electric motor in the truck to determine how it fares on the test track. Johansson confirmed that other project members are working on various electricity delivery methods, including induction charging.

Elsewhere, companies like Siemens are looking into power delivery using overhead cables, but Volvo suggests that its development may prove a more attractive proposition.

"From what we have seen so far, overhead lines are a more expensive solution than the what we are testing right now," says Johansson. "Overhead lines have the additional drawback that they cannot be used by cars. The visual impact is also less appealing compared to a technology located in the road. But we're not ruling out a solution that uses overhead lines. The research in the coming years will hopefully show what will be best for society."

While technical development of the current collector, electric motor and necessary control systems continues, the research project is also considering how best to implement and maintain a deployed system. At the moment, this system is managed locally using smart sensors, but there is scope for remote operation and monitoring, and it's reported capable of providing much more power, if needed. There's also a possibility that the technology could be adapted to deliver AC in the future.

It's also likely that the power lines will be built into existing roads, rather than requesting the construction of new roads. The first vehicles to use such a system could well be hybrids rather than full EVs, to help guard against short power interruptions. Then there's the small matter of working out how much drivers will be charged to use such a system, and the subsequent setting up of payment models.

Source: Volvo

37 comments
Ian Jones
Nice try! It's a frickin' slot car! It's bound to work in Canada!!!
Max Kennedy
OK, like most of it but what prevents a short circuit in wet weather or an accidental human/animal zap?
ivan4
It will be interesting to see just how well it stands up to a downpour - water and 750v DC don't get play very well together. Another thing, how do they propose keeping the pickup pad on the tracks if the truck has to veer sideways from the straight line?
The Skud
Would cost as much to retrofit old roads as to include in new ones. What happens if an animal - cat, dog, critter - runs across in front? A good choice, flattened or fried! And how many shorted-out sections before something runs out of stored power and grinds to a traffic-jamming halt?
Kes Keesha
OK for long haul routes maybe but useless in cities or rural.
TheOne
Max and ivan4: It uses a process called "induced current" a method where current from the source naturally generates a magnetic field, which in turn is converted back to an electric current in the pick-up. Since the magnetic flux passes through insulation there is no exposed conductive material to short circuit. Same technology is currently used to charge electric toothbrushes, except scaled down significantly. The article also states that the pick-up uses smart tracking to keep it in position. From the photos it looks as though it slides left-right. I cant see the 1000's of kilometers of Australian outback roads having this installed, though. Especially considering most of the are still dirt!
Matthew Giles
They already have things like this that can only go where the tracks dictate....... (and if you missed it: Trains)
Slowburn
Due to the track being made up of short segments that are only charged when a properly equipped vehicle is over or just ahead of it and moving at least at 60 km/h (37 mph) any animals that get fried have already been run over. Pure water does not conduct electricity. The water in rain and snow is pretty pure. Precipitation on the track is not the problem problem that most people think. In places that do not get enough rain to clean the insulators on high-tension distribution lines they use a truck very similar to a fire truck to wash the insulators with pure water when the lines are live; nobody gets fried. re; TheOne The inductive system was mentioned only as a possible option that was being worked on. re; Matthew Giles Trains have to stay on the tracks the truck or other vehicle has to be able to get onto the highway and attain as speed of at least 60 km/h (37 mph) thus it has an engine or batteries and is capable of going places that the tracks do not go.
Taavi
I can see this used for public transport. Maybe take off the speed limit and implement these tracks in bus stops. If the bus pulls in to take passengers it can load the batteries. Also You can put these tracks on large intersections where transport has to wait a long time.
Sieg
The guys at Volvo obviously do not read Gizmag or Science Daily otherwise they would know that the concept they are proposing is dead.