Overcoming Electric Vehicle Limitations With Electric Roads

Volvo's Electric Road
Richard Sebestyen, Project Manager at Volvo Group Trucks Technology, with Volvo’s Electric Road.

Electric vehicles promise clean, quiet transportation, but they suffer from a severe drawback: Their range is limited by their battery capacity. While battery technology is improving, range and weight still make electric vehicles impractical for many applications, particularly those involving heavy loads such as trucks and buses. The Volvo Group is working to overcome these limitations, not by improving battery capacity, but by eliminating the need for batteries at all.

The Volvo Group already has extensive experience with electric drive-trains and is building on that experience with some unique ideas. Along with the Swedish Energy Agency, the Swedish Transport Administration, Vattenfall, several universities, and vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, Volvo is working on what it calls Electric Roads.

Volvo is exploring two possible configurations. Under the first, vehicles would carry batteries, but the batteries would be charged frequently. Mats Alaküla, the Volvo Group’s expert on electric vehicles and Professor at Lund University, explains, “In city traffic, there are currently various solutions and we are researching many others. We have field tests in progress where our plug-in buses are equipped with a battery that can be charged quickly when the buses are at bus stops.” The vehicle’s batteries could thus be small and light, since they would need only enough capacity to drive the vehicle to the next charging station.

Obviously this system would not work for long-distance trucks and buses that stop infrequently; so many batteries would be required that there would be no room for cargo or passengers. Instead, Volvo, together with Alstom, is proposing a second solution that would continuously supply power from an external source through two power lines built into the surface of the road along the entire length of the vehicle’s route. A current collector in contact with the power lines would be located on the vehicle, eliminating the need for large, high-capacity batteries. “With this method,” says Mats Alaküla, “electric vehicles could be continuously supplied with power without carrying large batteries. The power line will be built in sections and one section is only live as the truck passes.”

Last year, Volvo built a 400-meter long track at its testing facility in Hällered outside Gothenburg, and has been testing the system since last autumn. Richard Sebestyen, Project Manager at Volvo Group Trucks Technology, the Volvo Group’s research and development division, comments, “We are currently testing how to connect the electricity from the road to the truck. The electricity flows into a water-cooled heating element, with similar power requirement as an electricity-driven truck.”

Further research is required before these systems become commercially viable. Challenges with current collectors, electric motors, and control systems must be solved, along with road construction and maintenance issues, electricity supply in parallel with the roads, and even practical payment models. “A lot of years remain before this is on our roads,” says Mats Alaküla. “But, if we are to succeed in creating sustainable transport systems, we must invest significantly in research now. I am convinced that we will find a cost-efficient way to supply electricity to vehicles in long-distance traffic and we have already come a long way in our research.”

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