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Simplified powertrain approach offers hybrid flexibility

Nov. 1, 2011
The future appeal of hybrid vehicles among fleets – be they cars, commercial trucks, or buses – is going to boil down to their ability to be “flexible” over time, according to global industrial manufacturer Siemens, which counts electric motors and drivetrains among its many products

The future appeal of hybrid vehicles among fleets – be they cars, commercial trucks, or buses – is going to boil down to their ability to be “flexible” over time, according to global industrial manufacturer Siemens, which counts electric motors and drivetrains among its many products.

In an interview with Fleet Owner, Thomas Orberger, hybrid drives business manager for Siemens, explained that hybrid powertrains must maintain a “one-size-fits-all” approach, so one base platform can be successfully paired with anything from gasoline, diesel, or natural-gas fired engines, to hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

“You cannot start from square one with a hybrid each time you introduce a new power source; you must have a single drivetrain platform in place that can be combined with different engines and fuels over time,” he said.

Siemens produces related pieces of its Elfa brand drivetrains here in the U.S., with controllers and related components manufactured in Alpharetta, GA, and electric motors in Norwood, OH.

Going forward, fleets especially will need consistency of components within the hybrid drivetrain as well, Orberger noted, so maintenance practices aren’t significantly affected over time.

“A fleet can start out with diesel hybrid buses, for example, and then switch to fuel cell hybrids later on without the drivetrain ‘topology’ changing very much,” he pointed out. “That’s an important characteristic hybrids must maintain to appeal to fleets and OEMs alike.”

In North America, Orberger said Siemens splits the “heavy duty” hybrid vehicle market into three areas: buses, long-haul trucks, and medium-duty trucks.

Currently, the transit bus market remains the biggest opportunity for hybrids, he explained, with 20 to 25% of the market made up of buses equipped with some sort of hybrid powertrain.

“Within 10 years, we expect the transit bus market to be 50% hybrid, which will include a strong push for all-electric models because the duty cycle fits well with how hybrid technology works,” Orberger noted. Largely because of the stop-and-go, slow speed, fixed-route nature of bus operations, significant energy can be produced via regenerative braking and the low speeds allow the vehicles to function on battery power alone for long stretches.

Long-haul trucks, however, are a different case altogether, he said. “Mild hybrid solutions make more sense here because they operate over long distances at highway speeds,” Orberger explained. Also, return-on-investment [ROI] calculations typically don’t work because the hybrid powertrain is used infrequently.

The big play for hybrids in trucking, however, comes in the medium-duty space – especially in terms of “plug-in” hybrids, where the battery system can be recharged by hooking the vehicle up to an external power source.

Fleets with designated, short-haul routes – such as package carriers like FedEx or beverage distributors like Coca Cola – where vehicles operate from the same terminal location day after day, are the ideal fit for plug-in hybrid trucks going forward, said Orberger.

“These are trucks with a defined duty cycle, traveling short distances and making numerous stops,” he explained. “We see this as a big market because these truck operations can demand a comprehensive hybrid solution: vehicles equipped with hybrid powertrains and external recharging infrastructure.”

As Siemens builds both types of technologies – the hybrid powertrain and recharging systems - and can offer financing to tie it all together, Orberger believes the potential for such a “one-stop solution” could be big among these types of fleets. “It also helps get the ROI into a more conducive timeframe for the fleet as well,” he noted.

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