Test track with e-trucks: brummi becomes summi

In Germany, the first trucks with overhead lines are driving along the autobahn. Still on a test basis, but pretty smoothly.

On the left, the e-truck on the A5 in Hesse, without the hum and exhaust fumes Photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/picture alliance

In Hesse, Germany’s first two hybrid trucks that can draw electricity from an overhead line above the highway are on the road. "Emission-free on the spot" is how the federal government, state and project partners are advertising the eHighway project. Test routes in Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Wurttemberg are under construction. On the A5, the e-trucks are already in everyday use between Langen and Weiterstadt. The taz was on board.

The meeting point is the Grafenhausen-West service area, next to the five-kilometer electrified test route. Oliver Rabsch, 48, has been driving trucks for 26 years. Four weeks ago, he took delivery of the new Scania 450 Hybrid. "I like being a truck driver," he says, having lived in Hesse for a long time. With audible pride, he presents his new company vehicle: 450 diesel hp, plus 177 hp from an electric motor. The lithium-ion batteries have a capacity of 15 kWh. One charge is enough for a purely electric drive of 12 to 15 kilometers. From the outside, the only difference between the new truck and conventional hybrid trucks, such as those used by the Friedrichsdorf-based company Meyer-Logistik since 2016, is the current collectors, the "panthographs," developed by project partner Siemens.

We climb the driver’s cab via three steps. There is less space here than in his "old" truck, Rabsch reports. There is no bunk. This truck is used more for short distances. The space is needed for the new electronics. The start is unusual. Rabsch steers the 36-ton vehicle almost silently into the traffic on the A5 toward Weiterstadt. The hybrid drives purely electrically for the first few meters. Only rolling and wind noises can be heard. Then the diesel engine kicks in. It, too, runs comparatively smoothly.

When the truck pulls into the rightmost lane of the highway under the overhead wire, a light on the dashboard comes on. The electronics detect the overhead line. At the push of a button, the pantograph extends. Seconds later, the diesel switches off again. The truck runs on electricity and charges the batteries at the same time. "The technology is quite fascinating," says Rabsch, because he doesn’t have to worry about drive management. "You have to get used to the quietness in the cab."

Matthias Strehl, managing director of Meyer-Logistik, is also taken with it. The company uses 1,200 "pulling units," including hybrid vehicles, all-electric delivery trucks and those that run on liquid or natural gas. "We are participating in this model test because we want to find the right concept for our business model," he says. Electric trucks are now essential for deliveries to grocery stores in residential areas and at night, he adds. "We will see more diversity in drives," he predicts.

No problems in everyday operation

Twice a day, driver Rabsch drives his truck between Raunheim and Wiesloch, from the central warehouse of a grocery chain to one of its stores. He can load 33 pallets or 54 roll containers. The trailer can be cooled down to 28 degrees below zero if necessary. "So far, there are no problems in everyday operation," he assures. His first trucks consumed more than 40 liters of diesel per 100 kilometers; with the hybrid vehicle, the consumption figures are 20 liters, he calculates.

By 2022, five vehicles with pantographs will be deployed in each of the three participating states. The logistics companies will each pay a fixed leasing rate. Infrastructure and electricity are financed by the Federal Environment Ministry, while the states are responsible for managing the project. The federal government is providing 30 million euros for the pilot project in Hesse alone. The Technical University of Darmstadt will evaluate data and experiences: "One of the core objectives of the project is to evaluate whether and in what form an eHighway can one day exist on German highways," writes Hessen-Mobil. End open.

Does driver Rabsch feel like a pioneer? "A little bit, yes." He is bothered, however, by the fact that the test track is not yet under power all day. "When I come back at 5 p.m. for my second haul, I have to drive under the overhead line with diesel; at 4 p.m. it’s switched off, that’s a joke!" he says. Hessen-Mobil assures that 24-hour operation is in preparation.