Road transport, reinvented

Road transport is a major stake for durable mobility. According to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), it accounts for over 75% of all goods transported over land. It also contributes about one-fifth of the EU’s road transport emissions of carbon dioxide. That impact is likely to grow: “Experts expect global CO2 emissions from road freight traffic to more than double by 2050,” Andreas Thon, Siemens’s vice president for Turnkey Projects and Electrification in North America, tells New Atlas. Thankfully, road transport can be disrupted too.

Electric highways

In 2012, Siemens started testing in Germany its eHighway concept, in which commercial vehicles are retrofitted with a powertrain that draws electricity from overhead cables, allowing them to run on electric power only. In 2016, the “electric highway for trucks” made it to Sweden and in 2017, it was installed around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California. The aim of the demonstration was to show the system can help reduce “smog-forming, toxic emissions around ports,” wrote New Atlas at the time. Inverse wrote that “cutting truck emissions would have a huge impact on climate change and on the health of those who live near the most congested cities.” Siemens’ Andreas Thon explained: “That’s the main reason that we’re doing this. The main reason is the environmental aspect, both pollution and noise. The economic benefits come in addition.”

In Sweden, in April 2018, a similar technology was installed in the road: two tracks of rail transfer electricity through a movable arm that attaches to the bottom of a moving vehicle. The electrified road is the world’s first that can recharge the batteries of cars and trucks; at 1€ a kilometer, the cost is roughly 50 times lower than that required to construct an urban tram line, reports The Guardian. And the “dynamic charging” means the vehicle’s batteries can be smaller. The Swedish government is reportedly in talks with Germany to develop a network of such highways.

Autonomous trucks

In 2016, the Netherlands organised the first “European Truck Platooning Challenge” so that six European manufacturers could test their autonomous trucks in real life. Platoons of WiFi-communicating trucks left Germany, Sweden and Belgium to converge to the Rotterdam harbour. The aim was to prove that self-driving trucks are safer, cost less and consume less fuel: according to a study, two platooning trucks driving for 160 000 km could save up to 6000€ of gas a year.

In the United States, competition is already fierce. The main actors of the automated truck business are Peloton Technology, Embark, Starsky Robotics, as well as Waymo, and Kodiak Robotics. The new kid on the block, Ike, wants to build “hubs” along the highways, where self-driving trucks can park and wait for drivers to take them to their final destination. The question now, on both sides of the ocean, is whether the diversity of legal frameworks can accommodate the deployment of autonomous freights at a large scale. In Belgium, for instance, where the minimum safety distance between two trucks is 50 meters, “platooning” (which requires trucks to drive closer to one another) is de facto illegal.

The virtues of an integrated approach

But technology is not the only answer to the greenhouse gas emissions problem. In 2016, the ACEA presented the results of a study by Transport & Mobility Leuven (TML), entitled “Greenhouse gas reduction measures for the road freight transport sector.” Its conclusion was that improving the technology of new vehicles is only part of the solution: “there are many more factors than just the vehicle alone that determine CO2 emissions – such as permitted vehicle length and weight, trailer designs, alternative fuels, driver behaviour, optimised transport operations, infrastructure and more,” said ACEA Commercial Vehicle Board Chairman, Martin Lundstedt, who is CEO of Volvo Group. The “optimised transport operations” part is tackled, for instance, by Cargonexx, a Hamburg-based startup that was among the winners of the 2018 edition of the European Startup Prize for Mobility: it uses AI to improve the utilisation of trucks and reduce the number of empty runs.

A 2016 report by the European Environment Agency, entitled “Explaining Road Transport Emissions”, confirms that good progress has been achieved over the past 25 years thanks to a global approach: setting technological standards for vehicle emissions and fuel quality, establishing air quality limits, improving transport planning and public transport incentives, among other things. And the ACEA strongly advocates for an integrated approach, which they believe to be “the only way to reduce the CO2 emissions of the transport industry in Europe on a large scale.”