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Through its 21st Century Truck Partnership, the U.S. Dept. of Energy is looking to drive research and bring innovation — particularly for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles — that will make more mobility available at lower cost.

INDIANAPOLIS. Those familiar with the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s (DOE) SuperTruck cooperative funding program, which in two phases sought to double freight-hauling efficiency of Class 8 trucks since 2009, have seen its innovations translate into more aerodynamic, fuel-sipping semi-trucks available today. Now, DOE sees “tremendous” trends converging in transportation that could mean much higher energy needs for freight and people transport — or maybe remarkably less.

And of course, the goal is to help guide the nation to the latter eventuality. “We are really trying to move aggressively toward a much more visionary future,” said Michael Berube, director of DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office, at the Green Truck Summit here in Indianapolis.

Berube said the department is now particularly targeting medium- and heavy-duty vehicles for efficiency improvements. “We have really been taking a hard look at where we can go further — how we can set a bigger vision both for ourselves as well as for our 21st Century Truck Partnership,” he told the audience. He pointed to “21CTP” as a renewed focus for DOE and mobility as “foundational” to the modern lifestyle and the economy.

Defining that simply as the ability to move freight and people, Berube noted that in 2017, the nation transported 11 billion tons of goods. And some “tremendous” trends influencing mobility needs, he said, include population growth of 70 million expected in the United States over the next 30 years; up to 75% of the population moving to and living in urban areas in that same time frame; expansive growth in the senior population; and younger generations getting around and ordering goods very differently than before.

Providing a few examples, one-third of Americans over age 65 have a mobility-limiting disability, he said, and 73 million Americans age 18-34 drive 20% less than that age bracket a decade ago.

“Technology is underpinning all of these,” Berube contended.

DOE is now looking to a number of areas to improve vehicle efficiency, including:

• The integration of connected and automated technologies;
• The introduction of shared service platforms;
• Advancements in energy storage technology;
• Deeper application of big data; and
• Faster computer processing speeds at lower cost.

“We need to study the energy implications of changes in mobility,” Berube said. “There could be up to a 200% increase in the amount of energy consumed, but it also could lead to a 60% reduction in the energy consumed across the transportation sector, depending on how those technologies evolve and how they are used.”

The 21CTP program’s goal is to arrive at trucks and buses that can safely and cost-effectively move larger volumes of freight and greater numbers of passengers with increased energy efficiency, productivity, reliability — all with the same or lower total cost of ownership — while supporting national security and environmental stewardship, Berube said. He described the partnership’s four distinct focus areas going forward.

1. Internal combustion engine powertrains: Drive engine efficiency toward 60% while achieving near-zero emission levels at half the current cost for medium- and heavy-duty powertrain systems.

“This has actually been a core area of work of the partnership, but there are other areas we really want to grow,” Berube said. “How do you do both of those things simultaneously? We believe we can achieve up to 57% engine efficiency in large Class 7 and 8 engines. That’s going to take a combination of different engines and fuels. Don’t take the fuel as a given — you take the optimal fuel and the optimal engine design and put them together for the highest level of efficiency you can get.”

“Diesel and internal combustion engines are going to be with us for a long time to come, so it’s important that we continue to focus on these areas,” he added.

2. Electrified powertrains: Develop electric powertrain options that meet commercial truck customer duty cycles at drastically reduced capital and operating cost, harnessing high-performance computing to analyze and design scalable, modular systems for high-volume production.

“We see electrification as a key new technology piece, but there are many barriers that need to be addressed,” Berube told listeners. “We at DOE know quite a bit about electrified powertrains, about battery technology and developing state-of-the-art technology for a number of years. But we have not had a focus of electrification specifically in the medium- and heavy-duty truck space. We are going to significantly step up our work — how far can we go?”

“Can we get to a Class 8 long-haul vehicle with electric power for its motive power? What would that look like? What type of energy densities would you need? What type of charging do you have to have?

“Maybe it’s not batteries; maybe it’s a different way of approaching it. Maybe we’ll have dynamic, wireless charging. We’re thinking about a vision that takes us well beyond 2025,” he noted.

3. Freight operational efficiency: Achieve secure, robust, connected and automated systems by applying deep learning and data analytics to maximize future freight and passenger mobility across the scale from individual vehicles to interactions of thousands of vehicles.

“If you take the tremendous amount of data that we have and connected infrastructure that is starting to be deployed — the data that is already available from vehicles and will be much more so in the future — can we put those together and use our supercomputing and [artificial intelligence] capability to actually predict where congestion will be ahead of time?” Berube asked.

“Can we actually prevent or minimize that congestion before it occurs?”

That’s just one example of more advanced use of vehicle and road data, Berube said, suggesting that predictive computations could lead to significantly shorter travel times and lower energy consumption at the same time.

4. Safety: Create a safe and efficient freight and passenger transportation network using the unique resources available across the partnership to discover and implement technologies at the intersection of safety, efficiency and productivity.

“How can we look at the new technology including automation and including active safety features but also from the operations side as well to significantly improve safety?” Berube said. “We’re working extensively across the partnership — really, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are our lead partners within this space — but they have visions like, ‘Can we eliminate roadside inspections going forward completely?'”

“How far can we take automation? What will platooning be able to lead in terms of safety improvement?” he continued. “The questions we’re asking are really pushing these technologies far out to the future — how far can we take these technologies overall?”

With those research areas as the blueprint for an ultimate goal of “drastically” improving transport efficiency, like the SuperTruck program helped to, the 21CTP government-industry partnership has got to move on these research elements right away, Berube contended.

“We need to start working now on the research to address those questions now if we want to get there,” he said.