Give Me More Power, Scotty

July 6, 2015

Over the weekend I happened to catch a very young William Shatner in an episode of the Twilight Zone made in 1963.  In it, he was “seeing things” that no one else could see that were going to cause a plane to crash.  This may not be quite that serious, but our need for electric power on a diesel powered vehicle seems to know no end.

I’ve often told people that in the 80’s when I started in the trucking industry, alternators were sized at about 85 amps for a truck.  Now, it’s common to expect 270, 300 amps or more out of an alternator in order to power all the amenities for the driver and try to keep the batteries charged.  Over the years, we also increased the voltage to the headlamps by rewiring them more efficiently.  We also improved the voltage drop from the batteries to the starter which has become more important as large, cold engines got harder to start as they improved their emissions for the EPA.

But, those improvements are not enough.  Where-as that truck with an 85 amp alternator may have had two Group 31 batteries, today’s vehicles could have 4 batteries for the tractor, another 4-8 for the electric air conditioning system, and one or two on the trailer for a lift gate.  I think it’s time to bring back the ammeter, keep drivers from wiring around it to “steal” power, and use the vehicle diagnostic systems to monitor and record the state of charge.

Electric vehicles and various electric hybrid vehicles, (even the new fuel cell vehicles in California) all have some sophisticated electronics, often referred to as the Battery Control Unit (BCU).  Because batteries are the heart and soul of those vehicles, monitoring the batteries is required. Unfortunately, those systems are too complex for a regular 12 volt-powered Class 8 tractor.  The simple ammeter of two decades ago was a problem in its own right, as the “sensor” was a heat source and it introduced voltage drops in the wrong places.  But, what if?

What if the alternator regulator could have some additional electronics it it to better monitor what power is coming out of the alternator?  What if, the battery itself could have some electronics for monitoring what is coming out of it.  (This is not really a new idea.  Long ago I worked with Maxwell, who now has an ESM for Engine Starting Module).  What if that electronics were tied into the vehicle diagnostic system of the vehicle OEM and could be Monitored, Reported and Recorded (MRR).  What if such electronics were standardized and available in higher quantities that would drive down the price to where it could be standard rather than a higher cost option?  What if our industry embraced 24 volts?  Would some of our electric problems get smaller?  I had to throw that in.  I’ve wrestled with that question since the late 80’s and we still have not realized the benefits.

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