Autonomous Driving and Fuel Efficiency

TuSimple – a San Diego-based company that designs autonomous driving technology for the trucking industry – claims that their autonomous driving technology reduces fuel consumption by 10%. In terms of fuel saved, TuSimple asserts that a 10% reduction across the board would be equivalent to 4 billion gallons of fuel. TuSimple arrived at these figures by conducting a study with the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California San Diego. The study examined how autonomy impacts fuel consumption.

The test was conducted by equipping autonomous trucks with what is known as black box technology. This technology tracks and records data pertaining to the vehicle’s driving performance, including statistics such as speed, GPS location, and distance to name a few. In order to gauge fuel consumption from the black box data, TuSimple’s researchers relied on the Virginia Tech Comprehensive Power-based Fuel Consumption model which combines the function of speed, location, acceleration and braking to derive estimates. Researchers also equipped manually driven trucks with black box technology so that they could compare fuel efficiency between manual and autonomous trucks.

Once the manual and autonomous trucks had black box technology installed, researchers looked at fuel consumption at different ranges of speeds. According to researchers, the goal was to determine whether fuel efficiency changed at all based on speed. Based on the study, TuSimple concludes that the greatest fuel savings between manual and autonomous trucks happen while driving at slower speeds that involve a higher frequency of acceleration and braking. Conversely, TuSimple reports that highway speeds showed very little difference in fuel efficiency between autonomous and manual trucks. In conclusion, TuSimple believes that autonomous trucking can significantly reduce fuel consumption and asserts that if all medium- and heavy-duty trucks adopted their self-driving technology, that CO2 emissions would be cut by 42 million metric tons per year.

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Engine Developers Face New Challenges

Engine developers face new trends in the industry that significantly influence how they produce engines for heavy-duty vehicles. Their main areas of concern include machine ownership patterns, political forces such as government regulations, and getting new products to the market quicker and more efficiently. Caterpillar Industrial Power Systems designed the new C3.6 engine with these factors in mind, stating specifically that customer feedback and lower owning and operating costs were at the top of their priorities list. According to Caterpillar, the result is the compact C3.6 engine that is electronically turbocharged, giving it the capability to produce 134-hp, more power density, and better torque than its predecessor.

As for machine ownership patterns, the product marketing manager for Caterpillar – Alex Eden – explains that customers are shifting towards a rental economy rather than the traditional ownership model. Instead of buying heavy-duty vehicles and machines, customers and fleets are looking to rent them. This raises questions about future sales processes and product cycles that are yet to be answered.

In addition to market influences, government regulations put pressure on engine developers with measures such as CO2 and emissions regulations, air quality improvement standards, and zero-emission zones for urban areas. In particular, demand grows for quieter engines that fall in line with urban noise restrictions. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) is a major concern in engine design. Pierpaolo Biffali – VP of product engineering at FPT Industrial – states that though the industry is heading for zero-emissions, clean diesel engines reduce CO2 levels in the meantime.

The last major factor that influences engine design is the competitiveness of the industry. When producing the C3.6, Caterpillar utilized a 3D printer to reduce production time. Developers printed an entire C3.6 engine in its various parts and examined how all the pieces would fit together before actual assembly. When the parts arrived, they assembled the engine faster and more efficiently than they had without the 3D printer which is crucial to remaining competitive in the market. Caterpillar believes that technology like this will help them remain competitive in the future by getting products to the market faster without sacrificing quality.

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AI in your EV

Tim Sherstyuk embarked on an ambitious journey towards understanding and improving the efficiency of EV batteries. The idea initially came to him when he was a college student studying chemistry at Carleton University. He wanted to investigate why cell phone batteries die quicker than batteries operating other devices. He and his father, who is an electrical engineer, put their heads together to research why batteries die out and if there is a way to prolong the lifetime of batteries.

One hypothesis is that “pulse” charging can accomplish exactly this. The traditional method of charging – the constant-current method – inflicts a lot of damage and wear on batteries. The hope is that pulse charging will alleviate some of that wear on batteries while they charge.

The Use of AI

The Sherstyuk team incorporates the use of artificial intelligence in their studies of pulse recharging on batteries. They rely on AI because it offers much-needed insight that accelerates the feedback loop during experiments. In fact, other companies have taken advantage of AI, one of which is the Toyota Research Institute (TRI). They implemented AI into their tests and research on batteries and now assert that AI accelerates the progress of research and discovery. They currently use it to run 400 different battery tests and experiments at the same time which would be impossible through traditional channels. In their words, “AI accelerates R&D cycles.”

For the Sherstyuks, the goal is to improve the method of battery charging so that the battery itself lasts longer. Reducing impedance and the damage incurred from charging quickly are examples of what Sherstyuk aims to eliminate during the charging process. Fast charging raises the temperature of the battery which can lead to heightened cell degradation and potentially cause the battery to swell. The Sherstyuks conducted testing by using an adapter-like device that could potentially be built into the charging connector. AI provides real-time measurements during the charging process that helps Sherstyuk determine how much energy needs to go into the battery pack. After seven years of testing, the Sherstyuks see positive results. Though pulse charging is not new, the use of AI provides real-time feedback and data that was previously lacking. Sherstyuk’s hope is to fine tune pulse charging so that the lifetime of EV batteries is prolonged. This would have many benefits, according to Sherstyuk, including environmental benefits as longer battery life would lead to less battery waste.

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Mirror-less Vehicles

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the pros and cons of replacing conventional rear- and side-view mirrors with camera monitoring systems on passenger vehicles. NHTSA asked for experts, opinions, and research on the implications of making this change to passenger vehicles. On the one side, automotive designers and engineers say that getting rid of exterior mirrors would improve not only the aesthetics of automobiles but reduce their aerodynamic resistance as well.  Scott Miller, Director of Global CO2 Strategy, Energy, Mass and Aerodynamics for General Motors, says that exterior mirrors create aerodynamic drag while the vehicle is moving and removing them could produce a 1.5 to 2 miles per gallon gain. This is because according to Miller, 1 mpg in fuel efficiency is gained per 12-count reduction in drag and he expects a 20-count drag reduction per vehicle from the removal of two exterior mirrors. Further, a book published by SAE International notes that exterior side-view mirrors constitute anywhere from 2-7% of a vehicle’s total drag.

Two supporters of this initiative – the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) and Tesla – asked NHTSA to permit the installment and use of camera monitoring systems in vehicles instead of traditional mirrors. The foundational premises behind this petition are improved fuel efficiency and side vision; however, NHTSA did not grant them permission. NHTSA withheld approval in part due to a test it ran on a prototype camera monitoring system. While they found that the system proved “generally usable,” the test highlighted certain problem areas, including distorted images and problems in the rain. In other words, the test brought to light certain safety risks that could result from the implementation of cameras instead of mirrors. Therefore, before giving approval for camera monitoring systems on passenger vehicles, NHTSA seeks to further investigate the results of making such a change.

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Simplifying the Driverless Truck

Engineers and innovators continue the push towards implementation of driverless vehicles into various sectors of the market. Launching driverless vehicles means, in part, overcoming the obstacles that hinder progress, such as driving in crowded, urban areas or bad weather. One of the sectors hoping to overcome such obstacles quickly is the trucking sector. Developers in this area seek to simplify the role and usage of driverless trucks to avoid as many unforeseen problems as possible while simultaneously implementing the technology into the market more quickly.

For example, TuSimple – a company that develops automated trucking systems –  may first deploy driverless trucks that stay on open roads and highways and avoid crowded cities since driving in crowded areas involves different and more complex technology. Another example is deploying driverless trucks solely in good weather for the same reason: navigating harsh weather requires different and more complex technology. By skimming down the functions and responsibilities of driverless trucks, TuSimple can get them on the road sooner.

Another way to introduce driverless trucks to the market sooner is by using a strategy known as “autonomous convoying.” This is where an actual driver operates one truck while a driverless truck follows. The logic behind this approach is that the driverless truck – while depending on its automated systems – can follow the experienced driver ahead, thereby reducing potential problems and issues for the driverless truck. For example, a human driver can read the construction signs ahead of time and know to slow down in advance. The benefits work the other way around as well: when the driver needs to sleep, he or she can have the driverless truck takeover while they sleep without having to pull over and stop.

The bottom line: driverless truck developers hope to see the technology implemented into the trucking sector sooner rather than later. Simplifying the functions and roles of driverless trucks can help overcome obstacles and jump-start implementation.

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New Powertrain Technology Aims to Improve Engine Efficiency

Engineers and innovators continue to seek out new ways to improve engine efficiency, performance, and to reduce the amount of fuel consumed while driving. Changes to traditional systems in the internal combustion engine have already taken place and continue to advance the cause towards greater efficiency, but now engineers are looking to make changes to other parts of vehicles as well.

One area is the transmission. For example, the Detroit Integrated Powertrain Transmission has various sensors and controllers installed that improve engine performance by having the transmission communicate with the engine. The designers and engineers behind the technology believe these changes to the vehicle’s powertrain can help its engine produce power more efficiently. A variety of different functions exist, including one called eCoast which can sense what sort of terrain the vehicle is traveling on and then change engine rpm based on that data. When more power is needed, the engine rpms go back up to produce that power. Another function known as Skip Shift changes how the vehicle shifts through its gears while accelerating. Brian Daniels, manager of Detroit Powertrain and Components, explains that instead of a vehicle starting in first gear, then climbing from first gear to second, then from second to third, etc., Skip Shift technology can determine which gear the vehicle has the ability to start in. Daniels asserts that this technology can reduce the time and power needed to get up to speed which can ultimately save fuel.

Another change to traditional vehicle design is in the axles; specifically in their ratio design. Engineers and designers are looking to improve axle ratios in the hopes of improving fuel economy and efficiency. They assert that faster axle ratios enable vehicle engines to down-speed.  This means that the vehicle can maintain highway speeds at lower engine rpms and therefore consume less fuel without sacrificing functionality.

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Airfare or Cab Fare? How About Both?

There may soon be a new way to take a cab from point A to point B: through the air. A subsidiary of Boeing – Aurora Flight Sciences – tested its first autonomous personal air vehicle (PAV) in January and during the test, the PAV successfully executed its takeoff, hovering, and landing. The aircraft was not operated by a pilot but had two dummies sitting in the cockpit. The PAV is powered by an electric propulsion system that consists of 8 lift motors and a cruise propeller in the back. When it is launched, it is expected to be able to travel up to 50 miles in one flight. Boeing’s hope is to produce autonomous electric air vehicles that will be cleaner and quieter than aircraft vehicles that are currently available.

An amazing feature of the PAV is its ability to hover, conduct forward motion, and switch off between the two during flight. Ideally, air taxis will be able to lift passengers straight up off the ground, hover when necessary, and fly them to wherever they need to go. The idea of taking an airborne taxi sounds like something reserved for top executives and millionaires but this business concept is modeled on the same ride-sharing services that Uber and Lyft use. In fact, Uber has stated that it hopes to provide air taxi service in Dallas and Los Angeles as soon as 2023.

The concept of autonomous air vehicles is not new to Aurora Flight Sciences. Since its inception in 1989, Aurora has produced more than 30 autonomous air vehicles, including an autonomous cargo system for the United States Marines. This is especially useful to Marines when they find themselves in dangerous environments that make it difficult for traditional aircraft to penetrate.

Other aerospace manufacturers are working alongside Aurora to design and produce autonomous air vehicles, including Bell Helicopter and Airbus. Airbus is currently working to execute the first flight of is CityAirbus which will carry up to 4 passengers.

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New Fighter Pilot Technology Saves Lives

Auto-GCAS stands for Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System and plays an important role in safety for fighter pilots when they enter into combat. According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, a large number of fatal accidents happen on the ground, or what is often referred to as Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT). Due to the high-level of collisions both mid-level air and on the ground, the Defense Safety Oversight Council (DSOC) partnered with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to design a way to keep fighter pilots safer and less prone to CFIT. The result is the implementation of Auto-GCAS on F-16 Fighting Falcons and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II aircraft.

A number of different factors can cause CFIT including unconsciousness and distraction and – until Auto-GCAS – pilots had no way to combat or prevent CFIT. The F-16 and the F-35 aircrafts now have Auto-GCAS to fight the dangers of CFIT and to reduce the number of related incidents. It does so through intricate algorithms and what is referred to as a digital terrain database; in other words, the technology can detect an impending crash, take control of the aircraft, and completely avoid contact with the imminent terrain. Specifically, SAE mentions that once the Auto-GCAS system determines that a crash is inevitable, it takes control, rolls to wings level, and executes a 5g pull until the aircraft clears the terrain.

Mark Wilkins and Finley Barfield received the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association for their contribution to Auto-GCAS systems. SAE notes that since the F-16 was equipped with Auto-GCAS in 2014, seven airplanes and eight pilots have been saved. The hope is that further integration and innovation will take place, including further implementation of automatic air collision avoidance systems, implementation of ground/air collision avoidance systems and ways to implement Auto-GCAS into larger aircraft and unmanned aerial machines.

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