From trolley to ‘eHighway’
California funds study of hybrid dray trucks powered by overhead wires to achieve cleaner air.
The demise of the electric trolley car network that once crisscrossed Los Angeles is an important and controversial chapter in the history of public transportation, even becoming a subplot in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Now there’s a plan to deploy vehicles powered by overhead catenary wires for use around Los Angeles County. A one-year study will examine the feasibility of using hybrid drayage trucks powered with overhead wires as they move cargo in and out of the nation’s largest port complex.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has initiated a contract with Siemens for $13.5 million to fund construction of a system of poles and electrical catenary wire along South Alameda Street in Carson, Calif., between East Lomita Boulevard and the Dominguez Channel, so trucks will be able to drive along South Alameda in either direction using the power supplied by overhead wires.
This “test track” is scheduled for completion next July, and then a variety of hybrid drayage trucks will be demonstrated over a one-year period.
The trucks will attach and draw power from the catenary wires by driving beneath them, but use another source of power—an engine powered by diesel fuel, natural gas or a battery—when they drive off the line to continue their trips without pause.
If the test is successful, the link could be extended so that trucks traveling the five miles between the container terminals in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the Union Pacific intermodal container transfer facility and BNSF's planned Southern California International Gateway create what Siemens called an “eHighway.”
The California Department of Transportation is looking at expanding the Interstate-710 freeway north of the port and SCAQMD wants to include dedicated lanes for zero-emission trucks. The demonstration project could be a step in that direction. It has also been suggested the eHighway might someday be extended along the highway, CA-60, so trucks heading to warehouses in Ontario or other cities in the "Inland Empire" region can travel much of the way using power from the grid.
Matthias Schlelein, president of Siemens Mobility and Logistics, said “the economic logic of the eHighway system is very compelling for cities like L.A., where many trucks travel a concentrated and relatively short distance. Highly traveled corridors, such as this, are where we will initially see eHighway being applied.”
In 2011, SCAQMD, the California Air Resources Board, and Southern California Association said to meet federal air quality standards the region will need broad-use energy sources that have zero or very low emissions.
Indeed, the region has looked at a variety of ways to move freight using the electric grid, even considering construction of a magnetic levitation rail system
Erik Neandross, chief executive officer of Gladstein, Neandross & Associates, which prepared a study of the catenary system in 2012, said a problem with battery electric trucks or the maglev system is “you are tethered” and that’s not the way freight normally moves.
“The way the world works is the trucker goes to the terminal and picks up a container and drives it to Carson or to the rail yard in West Long Beach. Or maybe he has to go to Riverside or Bakersfield or San Diego,” he said.
He noted battery-powered drayage trucks have limited range, and besides its huge capital cost, a maglev system would require a large amount of container re-handling.
Three hybrid Class 8 drayage trucks are being built to demonstrate the feasibility of the eHighway. Volvo, through its Mack Truck unit, will manufacture the hybrid diesel-electric trucks, while California-based TransPower will build a hybrid compressed natural gas-electric truck and a battery-electric truck equipped with pantographs to test the eHighway concept.
Siemens has already demonstrated the viability of the system at a test facility in Germany, but Patrick Couch of Gladstein, Neandross said the stretch of roadway in Carson will provide more “real life data. It will allow us to see what the impact of the system might be on the grid and hopefully uncovering things we don’t know about that we should be looking for.”
A pantograph on the roof of the cab is raised when the truck is beneath the catenary wires and lowered when it drives away from the eHighway, so containerized cargo can be delivered or picked up at intermodal yards or warehouses. Sensors on the roof of the cab can sense when the truck is below the wires and automatically lowers or raises the pantograph.
That makes it different from an electric bus that must run on a fixed route and requires a driver to get out, put on big insulating gloves and reattach the pantograph to the catenary wire if it becomes disengaged.
One of the nice features of a catenary system, Couch said, is that “it can be retrofitted to existing systems. You’re not tearing up highways, and you are not restricting traffic to only heavy duty trucks because the catenary wires are 17 feet or so above the ground.” If passenger cars, for example, want to use the lane, they can, he added.
Each of the two Southern California ports are expected to chip in $2 million for the project, while $3 million will come from the California Energy Commission and $2.5 million from SCAQMD—the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Another $4 million will come from a $50 million settlement fund for air quality and aesthetic mitigation that was created in 2003 after environmental groups sued to block the expansion of the China Shipping terminal in the Port of Los Angeles. That fund is administered by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Couch said an aspect that makes the eHighway system attractive “is that you can build a zero-emission capability where it matters. It is not critical that you have zero emission when you are traveling through an unpopulated corn field in Tennessee. But when you are traveling through a dense urban area you have these greater emissions sensitivities, so you can build this infrastructure where it’s really critical to achieve zero emissions and in that context you’re not really comparing the vehicle against the diesel vehicle of today, because the diesel vehicle of today is not going to give you zero emissions.
“We also saw catenary as the lowest cost option to get zero emissions that you care about while still maintaining the operational flexibility that drayage operators and trucking fleets need,” he added.
This article was published in the September 2014 issue of American Shipper.