Electrifying Freight Transport: “It’s Not a Big Truck. It’s a Series of Tubes.”

November 19, 2012 | 4:05 pm
Don Anair
Interim Director, Clean Transportation

That now infamous quote (right) by the late Senator Ted Stevens refers to the inner workings of the internet. But is it also a description of the future of freight transport?

That’s what came to mind the other day as I came across the topic of tube freight transport, described in a 1994 issue of Public Roads. This futuristic vision of transporting freight, accompanied by the tron-like graphics, seems a little bit sci-fi, but re-imagining the freight transportation of today — which is dominated by diesel-powered trucks, trains, and ships — is exactly what we need to do if we are going to tackle air pollution and climate change emissions from moving freight as well as cut our projected oil consumption in half in the next  20 years.

Truck electrification may have an important role to play in this effort. In my previous blog post on truck electrification, I described some of the different electrification technologies being applied to trucks. In this post, I look at a couple of electrification technologies being developed for trucks that move shipping containers at ports.

Trucks operating at the nation’s ports present a unique opportunity for electrification technologies.

Long-haul tractor-trailers, those with license plates from far-flung states often seen on the interstate, crisscross the nation, traveling hundreds of miles per day. In contrast, trucks operating at or near ports, known as drayage trucks, typically operate less than 100 miles per day as they move shipping containers between the ports and local rail yards or warehouse facilities. Some trucks, called yard hostlers, never even leave port property as they are employed in moving containers within the port area itself. The combination of relatively low daily mileage and the ability to be centrally refueled opens the door to alternatives such as electrification.

Electrification of trucks at and near the ports makes sense for another reason – public health. Why? Think about all the stuff you buy, from that iPhone 5 to your new couch from IKEA. Odds are good that something you bought recently came through one of the nation’s ports. In 2010, more than 31 million containers of goods moved through U.S. ports, with 80 percent of those occurring at only ten locations. Imagine how many trucks and trains are needed to carry 31 million containers of goods.  Now consider concentrating those diesel-powered trucks and trains at just a handful of ports. The result of this concentration of diesel-powered transport takes a toll on the communities nearby – from elevated cancer risk to increases in hospital admission for heart and lung ailments, not to mention a host of other community impacts.

Demonstration of electric drayage trucks at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

The Technology Advancement Program, a component of the Clean Air Action Plan at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, has initiated a number of projects demonstrating truck electrification technologies including battery electric and fuel cell electric technologies. Here are a couple of projects that I found interesting.

A hydrogen-powered fuel cell drayage truck operating at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA. Photo courtesy of CALSTART.

Fuel cell drayage trucks  – The Port of Los Angeles is evaluating fuel cell electric trucks for drayage operations. These heavy-duty big-rigs have electric motors for driving the wheels, a battery to store regenerative braking energy, and hydrogen-powered fuel cells that generate electricity to maintain the battery charge.

The trucks have a potential range of up to 400 miles between refueling with hydrogen. Each fuel cell electric truck saves an estimated 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, while generating zero tailpipe emissions.  An order for 100 fuel cell trucks by a southern California firm was announced in May and Texas may be getting some soon as well. These trucks require access to hydrogen for refueling, but since they are operating primarily in and around the port, the fueling infrastructure needs are limited.

In addition to fuel cell trucks, additional battery electric drayage truck demonstration are also moving forward at the ports.

Demonstration of an overhead-wire powered truck. (Photo courtesy of Siemens)

Powering  trucks with overhead wires – This “back to the future” like system would provide electricity to trucks using overhead wires – similar to bus and trolley systems used today in some cities and first demonstrated in the late 1800’s.

The truck will have a mechanism (called a pantograph) on its roof, which reaches up and connects with the overhead catenary lines. The pantograph is automatic, and senses when there are lines overhead – connecting when external power is available, and retracting when the truck leaves the catenary section of highway. When off the catenary section, the truck operates could operate like a regular hybrid-electric vehicle.  While on the catenary section, drawing external electrical power, the truck has no tailpipe emissions. A demonstration project at the Southern California ports is being planned to prove out the concept.

Demonstration of a plug-in hybrid yard hostler. (Photo courtesy of CALSTART.)

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid yard hostlers – In addition to drayage trucks, yard hostlers, trucks that move containers with in the port, are also being demonstrated with hybrid and full battery electric systems.

While truck electrification is still in its infancy, demonstration projects like these could help validate electrification in real-world applications. There’s no silver bullet solution for cleaner freight transport, and big investments in systems like an overhead-wires for trucks need to be evaluated amongst other options, like more on-dock rail which could eliminate trucks trips rather than just electrifying them. But electrification of trucks could be step towards a cleaner and better freight transportation system. Whether or not it’s confined to a series of tubes, we’ll have to wait and see.