This Swedish highway charges electric vehicles as they drive along

It’s not too hard rattling off a list of qualities and attributes associated with Swedes: courteous, cool-headed, self-effacing and unfailingly punctual. Also: great at multitasking, resourceful, and fiercely protective of giant straw Yule goats. And judging from recent news, Swedes also hate wasting time when they could easily be on the move. It wouldn’t be fair to call Swedes impatient; they’re just aware of the fact that there are bigger and better things to do than sit around — especially while waiting for an electric vehicle to charge.

It makes sense then that Sweden is the first country to debut a highway that can charge the batteries of electric vehicles, both passenger cars and commercial trucks, as they drive along. That’s right — no more aimless searching for a roadside charging port or sitting around and anxiously tapping one’s foot as the EV slowly charges at home. This highway is the charger. All you have to do is drive on it.

Dubbed eRoadArlanda, the 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch of electrified highway is located near Stockholm Arlanda Airport, Scandinavia's third-busiest airport. Funded by the Swedish Road and Transport Agency, the highway’s defining feature are parallel rails embedded into the pavement that feed electricity into a car's battery via a retractable arm that extends the underside of a vehicle. Dangling from the car's chassis, the connector arm attaches itself to the road’s electrified groove. And just as the connector arms automatically drops when traveling over the rails, it disengages and folds back up underneath the vehicle when it stops or turns off to exit the highway,

"Everything is 100 percent automatic, based on the connector magnetically sensing the road," Hans Säll, chief executive of the eRoadArlanda Consortium, elaborates to The Local. "As a driver you drive as usual, the connector goes down onto the track automatically and if you leave the track, it goes up automatically."

Of course, the first thing that many think of when they see the words "electrified highway" is of potential perils for motorists — and not to mention wildlife — who might come in direct contact with said highway. With eRoadArlanda, the danger of being zapped by an electrified track is a non-issue given that the live electrical components are buried deep beneath the road. What's more, the rail is broken down into smaller individual sections that only receive a current when a vehicle is traveling directly above it.

"There is no electricity on the surface. There are two tracks, just like an outlet in the wall," Säll tells the Guardian. Five or six centimetres down is where the electricity is. But if you flood the road with salt water then we have found that the electricity level at the surface is just one volt. You could walk on it barefoot."

Installing electrified tracks at the eRoadArlanda near Stockholm. Workers install the electrified rails along the 12-km-long eRoadArlanda pilot highway project outside of Stockholm. (Photo: Joakim Kröger/NCC)

Electrified highways from coast to coast

For now, only one vehicle, a modified diesel truck operated by logistics company PostNord, is charging-up as it travels along eRoadArlanda’s electrified tracks. Outfitted with a connector arm, the idea is that the truck will rarely — if ever — need to be pulled out of service for a recharge as it shuttles back and forth between Stockholm Arlanda Airport and PostNord’s nearby distribution hub. (To be clear, the truck engages with the electrified tracks for only a small portion of the roughly 12 km journey between the airport and the distribution center.)

Although limited for the time being, the Swedish Road and Transport Agency has grand plans to make electrified roads the norm on highways throughout the country. Per the Guardian, dynamic, conductive EV charging technology will help to keep batteries smaller and less costly while giving peace of mind to motorists who might worry about being able to locate public roadside charging ports. (Range anxiety shouldn’t be too much of an issue to begin with as Sweden has been aggressive in deploying EV-friendly infrastructure across the country, even in more remote locales.) Not to mention, it's also wildly convenient.

The technology, which can also calculate how much electricity an individual vehicle consumes as it travels along an electrified stretch, would be limited to major Swedish highways and arterial roads. The idea that motorists making quick, low-mileage journeys on local residential streets can charge their cars at home as normal.

"If we electrify 20,000 km [roughly 12,400 miles] of highways that will definitely be enough," Säll explains to the Guardian, noting that Sweden has roughly a half-million km (about 310,685 miles) of roadways in total. "The distance between two highways is never more than 45 km [28 miles) and electric cars can already travel that distance without needing to be recharged. Some believe it would be enough to electrify 5,000 km [3,100 miles]."

The eRoadArlanda Consortium estimates that electrifying all 20,000 km of Swedish highway would cost roughly SEK80 billon or about $9.5 billion. This is a lot of scratch, obviously, but significantly cheaper — roughly 50 times less — than constructing an electrified urban tram line, according to the Guardian.

Work is underway along eRoadArlanda outside of Stockholm. Work is underway along eRoadArlanda, a pilot highway where vehicle-charging rails offers an alternative to electrified overhead wires. (Photo: Joakim Kröger/NCC)

Convenient for drivers, a boon for the environment

As reported by The Local, The Swedish Road and Transport Agency has it specifically on conquering the triangular, heavily traveled network of highways — 1,365 km or roughly 850 miles in total — that link the country’s three largest cities: the capital of Stockholm on Sweden’s south-central eastern coast, the port city of Gothenburg on the west coast, and beautiful Malmö, in southernmost Sweden on the Öresund strait.

In the shorter term, however, the agency plans to embark on another electrified highway pilot scheme measuring a more manageable 20 km (12.4 miles) to 30 km (18.6 miles), which could take two to three years to complete.

A previous road electrification pilot project financed by the Swedish Road and Transport Authority was completed in 2016 on a short stretch of European route E16 near the city of Gävle in central Sweden (home to aforementioned Yule goat.) That project, spearheaded by German manufacturing conglomerate Siemens alongside Swedish commercial automaker Scania, employed overhead wires to charge vehicles and was more or less customized for special hybrid trucks produced by Scania, and not standard electric cars.

"That solution can only handle heavy traffic, and our ambition is to cover both heavy and light traffic," Gunnar Asplund, the engineer who developed the road-embedded charging technology, explains to The Local. Another benefit of installing electrified rails directly in the road versus pole-supported overhead lines is that there is less of an obstruction in a motorist's field of vision.

In addition to making EV charging a time-saving, dynamic process for transport trucks and run-of-the-mill automobiles alike, Sweden also has climate goals to reach. With plans to liberate its transport system completely from fossil fuels by 2030, the Nordic nation needs to achieve a 70 percent reduction in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. eRoadArlanda Consortium is confident that this new technology can reduce carbon emissions by 80 to 90 percent all the while harnessing existing transport infrastructure.

"I think that this or a similar technology will be in commercial use within five to ten years," Säll tells The Local. "Every government that wants to have a fossil-fuel free transport system has to do something, and it's really difficult to see how you can do something without electric roads."

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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