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Could electrified roads be the future of driving?

Kwik Fit | Monday 1st October 2018 11:40am

Car on electrified road

The automotive world moves very fast, with exciting new innovations in driving emerging all the time. It wasn’t so long ago that electric cars were a rarity only seen at automotive exhibitions, whereas now electric and hybrid vehicles are a common sight on roads across the world. In fact, in the UK alone there were 47,000 new registrations of plug-in electric cars in 2017.

So, what’s next for automotive innovation? Driverless cars are very much a hot topic at the moment, but there’s also another fascinating development happening over in Sweden. The world’s very first electrified road has been opened not far from the capital Stockholm. If rolled out worldwide, electrified roads could potentially transform the vehicles we choose and the way we drive forever.

What is an electrified road?

Electrified roads are designed to transfer energy from rails in the road to electric vehicles, in order to keep them charged while driving. A small, moveable arm is attached to the underside of the vehicle, which automatically disconnects if the driver overtakes and therefore moves off the two rails of electrified track. It’s not dissimilar to how a railway or a model car track such as Scalextric works.

The system in Sweden is even more sophisticated than it first appears. Not only does the current disconnect when the car stops and when drivers overtake other vehicles, but it is also able to accurately track how much electricity each vehicle uses.

The power provided by electrified roads such as this one is unfortunately not free to motorists (although some countries may roll out free charging systems or even ‘zones’). The system in Stockholm is able to calculate consumption and associated electricity costs in order for the driver to be charged for their exact usage. For the convenience of charging on the move rather than having to scour the area for a charging point when away from home, many drivers of electric cars may not mind the costs.

Overcoming the challenges of charging electric cars

One of the main goals of the project in Sweden is to overcome a problem, or at least perceived drawback, related to electric cars - running out of charge. Many can travel around 100-200 miles on a single full charge, but there are startling differences between models as well as between the advertised and actual mileage figures. Some reports even claim that one model of electric car in particular only travels around 62% of the advertised mileage, which is just 58 miles, before needing to charge up.

This can understandably be off-putting for car purchasers, even those with a desire to reduce their carbon footprints. In Sweden, it’s hoped that charging on the go can make it far easier to use electric cars and also to reduce manufacturing costs so that there are more of them on the roads. ‘Dynamic charging’ such as this means that car batteries don’t need to be as large, which could shave a significant amount off the costs of making the vehicle.

Meeting environmental goals

Sweden currently has a particularly ambitious target to reach in relation to reducing fossil fuel use. To meet it, the nation will need to cut a huge 70% of fossil fuel use from its transport sector. This is the primary motivation behind the launch of this world-first electrified road, which stretches out for 2.1km along a public road linking Stockholm Arlanda airport to a logistics site just outside of the city centre.

By making electric cars more usable in everyday life, easier to charge and cheaper to make, it’s hoped that there will be a dramatic increase in the uptake in purchases and registrations of electric vehicles. Furthermore, it could mean that - along with other initiatives such as national grids moving towards battery storage, solar and wind power - countries like Sweden can significantly reduce their reliance on environmentally harmful fossil fuels.

Are electrified roads safe?

Thinking about the dangers for pedestrians of electrified railways, where touching a live rail can be fatal, it’s understandable that the public will have concerns about electrified roads. The Stockholm road track has overcome this issue with apparent ease, as the electricity is not on the surface of the road itself. It is actually around five to six centimetres underground. The electricity on the surface is barely registered - believed to be just one volt. The eRoadArlanda group that is behind the electrification project in Sweden even claims that “you could walk on it barefoot”.

The feasibility of a national and world-wide rollout

Nations with increasingly challenging carbon reduction targets to meet will be looking closely at what’s happening in Sweden, but there are bound to be doubts over feasibility. The main issue, as expected, is cost. Would it not be enormously expensive to electrify roads across the world?

The chief executive of eRoadArlanda, Hans Säll, has answered this question with some fascinating information. Speaking to the Guardian, he explained that it isn’t strictly necessary to electrify as many roads as you’d imagine in order to meet environmental targets on fossil fuel use. Säll believes that of the 500,000 kilometres of roadways in Sweden, it would only be necessary to electrify 20,000 kilometres if highways are prioritised. He said: “The distance between two highways is never more than 45km and electric cars can already travel that distance without needing to be recharged. Some believe it would be enough to electrify 5,000km.”

Going into more details on exact costs, eRoadOrlanda’s chief said that at €1m (around £894,000) per kilometre, the cost of electrifying roads is actually much cheaper than building a new tram line in a city centre. In fact, the cost is 50 times lower than this.

Other countries are already said to be considering electrification of their roads, with the Swedish government currently believed to be advising Berlin on electrifying some of its road networks.

What’s next for electric cars? Keep an eye on the Kwik Fit blog for the very latest news from the automotive industry.

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