Plans are emerging for an electric-powered truck highway in the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

Truckers in Los Angeles may want to rotate their driving music soon. Switch out the Red Sovine, pop in some Tron soundtrack by Daft Punk.

Why's that? Oh, only because L.A. may be about to usher in the E-HIGHWAY OF THE FUTURE!!!!

That's the name that engineers have chosen for a proposed electric highway for trucks. The concept was touted last week at the 26th Annual Electric Vehicle Symposium, no doubt causing a few conference-goers to cough out breakfast pastries in surprise over how far this futuristic-sounding idea has progressed.

The eHighway, as its known, would operate much like a 'roided-out trolley-car line. The key word here is pantograph. That's the flexible doohickey that you see on the top of a streetcar connecting it to an electric wire. The idea is to work with truck manufacturers to develop a hybrid vehicle with a pantograph that couples with a power line running above the highway.

When a truck pulls onto the enhanced highway, its pantograph grips the line and allows the trucker to switch off the gas and cruise solely on voltage. Braking would activate a mechanism to transfer the dragging momentum into energy, which would be shot back into the grid for all the cargo trucks to use. When the driver is ready to exit, he disengages his or her pantograph from the overhanging line and switches over to diesel fuel.

Renderings of the eHighway concept courtesy Siemens

The company behind the project, Siemens, is currently testing out the eHighway tech on an inactive airstrip outside of Berlin, driving Mercedes hybrid electric trucks down a mile-long runway outfitted with overhead catenary wires. The eventual goal is to deploy an eHighway pilot on Southern California's Interstate 710, which handles tons of truck traffic from the ports of Long Beach and L.A.

The electric highway would, with luck, reduce some of the foul air that currently makes the L.A. region the country's No. 1 city for ozone pollution and No. 3 in particle pollution, by the American Lung Association's ranking. Several key groups have expressed early interest in the project, including the Southern California Association of Governments, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and Southern California Edison.

Siemens (which, yes, is coincidentally one of our sponsors) has assured doubters that its coupling gadget is savvy enough to automatically disengage in the event of sudden swerves. It also claims that this concept will be "very easy" to integrate with America's existing highway system. And yes, iPad fans, the trucks will have touchscreen counsels for the pantographs.

The eHighway might seem laughable at the moment to all but the most fervent environmentalist, but just wait. Air pollution in Long Beach and Riverside costs these communities an estimated $18 million annually in asthma bills, docking residents on average an incredible 8 percent of their household income. And the toxic stew isn't expected to waft away anytime soon. Here's Siemens infrastructure chief Daryl Dulaney laying out the grim prognosis for the future in a press release:

"When most people think of vehicle emissions, they assume cars do most of the damage, but it’s actually commercial trucks that are largely to blame," says Dulaney. Freight transportation on U.S. roadways is expected to double by 2050, and by 2030, carbon dioxide emissions are forecasted to jump 30 percent due to freight transport alone.

So while electric trucking takes a little away from the exhaust-cloaked, chaw-stained trucker archetype, no doubt Californians will embrace it with both arms if it means hacking a little less brown goo into the Kleenex each morning.

About the Author

John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.

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