Trucks at Work

Speaking of electricity …

It’s not surprising that all-electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids find themselves on the back-burner of late – due largely to the precipitous drop in global oil prices since June of last year, which in turn helped sparked big declines in U.S. diesel and gasoline prices (though that could now be changing).

While some pundits believe that neither consumer nor commercial vehicle users need or want electric-powered cars and trucks – even some automaker executives think they are being forced by government regulations, instead of market demand, to make them – research and development in the electric propulsion space continues.

For example, check out the new Chevrolet-FNR all-electric autonomous concept car (above at right) being unveiled in Shanghai this week.

Developed in Shanghai by GM’s Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC) joint venture, the Chevrolet-FNR (with “FNR” shorthand for GM’s new marketing mantra “Find New Roads”) comes with crystal laser headlights and taillights, and dragonfly dual swing doors all powered by magnetic hubless wheel electric motors that can “re-fueled” via a wireless auto-charge system.

[For more photos of the torpedo-like Chevrolet-FNR, click here.]

GM also recently cut the price of the new Chevrolet Spark EV 1LT down to $25,995. Depending on an individual’s tax situation, the Spark EV is eligible for federal tax credit up to $7,500, noted Steve Majoros, director of Chevrolet car and crossover marketing, in a statement.

“Chevrolet is committed to making EV driving more accessible, affordable and fun,” he explained, adding that the Spark EV (seen at left) will be available at dealerships later this year.

“The 2015 Spark EV customers will benefit from an impressive blend of technology, capability and low cost of ownership, now at an even more impressive price,” he added.

[More examples of GM’s recent EV efforts can be found here.]

Majoros also pointed out that California and Maryland Spark EV owners may also qualify for a $2,500 California state rebate or $2,300 Maryland excise tax exemption. Additional Chevrolet bonus cash is also available, he noted: $1,000 in California, $1,200 in Maryland, and $3,500 in Oregon.

After full federal and state tax credits and Chevrolet bonus cash, the Spark EV could be as low as $14,995, he said.

GM is also offering a $139 per month sign-and-drive lease for 39 months with zero money due at lease signing to farther try to help “spark” EV demand.

Compared to the average new gas-powered vehicle, Majoros noted that the Spark EV can save drivers, on average, about $83 per month in fuel costs according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel economy assessments based on 24 mpg highway for an average vehicle and 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity cost.  

On the commercial side of the EV ledger, Jay Schultz, business development manager for vehicle electrification at Parker Hannifin Corp., recently shared some thoughts about the Walmart Advanced Vehicle concept truck unveiled last year and how it taps electricity to shrink its operating cost footprint.

He said Walmart challenged the companies involved in this project - Peterbilt Motors Co. (truck supplier), Capstone Turbine (powertrain supplier) and Parker Hannifin (motor supplier), among others – to attain a double-digit improvement in fuel economy.

Roush Engineering in Livonia, MI, for one, build this unusual truck’s body shell out of composite materials in an unusual shape not only to make it lighter but to make it 20% more aerodynamic – resulting in a 10% gain in fuel economy.

Yet the powertrain was where the heavy lifting had to be done, Schultz said, as the traditional diesel engine had pretty much been optimized as much as possible.

Thus the decision to add a turbine-based hybrid powertrain to this concept vehicle, which would rely on battery-supplied electricity to be its prime mover.

“A battery pack is the most expensive component in the drivetrain of any hybrid vehicle,” Schultz said. “Yet the design of this truck demonstrates that industry could reduce the sheer number of cells needed to power a vehicle by improving energy-per-mile usage. Doing that even by only 1% can knock thousands of dollars off the cost of a battery pack while yielding the same range.”

That’s where Parker Hannifin’s electric-fired global vehicle motor (GVM) (seen at left) came into play. It uses engineered magnetics to achieve high efficiencies in peak regions not obtainable in other designs, with a cooling system has minimal impact on the size and weight of the motor and its scalability allows a wide performance range, Schultz noted.

“Normally a diesel powered internal combustion engine spins the generator that would charge the battery pack in a hybrid vehicle,” he pointed out. “But the micro-turbine in this motor is very small and very clean, even if it burns diesel, because it is so hot. It destroys pollutants and the greenhouse gases more effectively than an internal combustion engine does.”

While there are certainly plenty of electric-only trucks being demonstrated around the world, he added, with plenty of hybrids sharing mechanical power from the internal combustion engine to power the vehicle forward, in the case of the Walmart concept truck, the diesel engine only charges the batteries.

“It can drive under battery power alone, and when energy storage gets low, the turbine will automatically start and recharge the batteries,” Schultz said. “You can also charge the batteries constantly while driving to extend the range of the vehicle over battery-alone power.”

One of the neat “side effects” of this turbine-based hybrid powertrain is that diesel engine doesn’t require aftertreatment, and it meets the emissions standards of current engines. The turbine is also capable of being fuel neutral, meaning it can run on natural gas, kerosene, etc., with only minor adjustments.

Still, the big hang-up remains the cost of battery power for commercial vehicles – which is why Schultz said the industry isn’t seeing trucks like this on the road right now.

He added that one of Peterbilt’s rules of thumb for making such heavy-duty hybrids commercially viable is that the energy storage cost must be able to pay for itself in the three to four-year time frame.

Right now, however, such hybrid systems need six to seven years to achieve payback, which still makes the cost of ownership a little bit high.

Yet when – not if – fuel prices start climbing again, that payback window might finally achieve the right fit, which may once more draw the attention of trucking to the propulsion potential of electricity.

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