Chu at NTEA: Diversity key to future fleet fuel efficiency

The NTEA Work Truck Show kicked off with U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Stephen Chu as the keynote speaker this morning in Indianapolis at the Green Truck Summit.

Dr. Chu spoke about general petrochemical, geopolitical and climate trends and how those factors will affect the North American commercial truck industry and transportation sector in coming years. Chu said that the Obama administration is taking a proactive role in working with American private businesses to drive innovation into the commercial truck industry with an overall goal of increasing fuel efficiency and productivity while driving down both acquisition costs and ROI for new and alternative propulsion technologies.

The Department of Energy is taking a multi-faceted approach to America’s energy needs, Chu says, with multiple overall goals: To reduce the pressure on families being squeezed by the cost of fuel, to moderate or even eliminate wild spikes in the cost of fuel, to promote and encourage the development, acceptance and use of alternate fuel and powertrain technologies and do all of this in a responsible manner that promotes the current economic recover and sustained economic growth going forward.

Chu said the Department of Energy’s current efforts are wide-reaching and hope to positively boost fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a number of markets and applications – from compact consumer automobiles all the way up to heavy-duty commercial trucks and trailers. The efforts range from aerodynamic initiatives, to vehicle weight reduction through the use of new, lightweight, high-strength steel in automotive designs. “We know that for every 10 percent reduction in weight we can take out of a passenger car, there is a corresponding 7 percent increase in fuel efficiency,” Chu noted. “

At the same time, Chu says the Department of Energy is pioneering the use of vehicle and engine design using government-developed and funded super computers to accelerate the time-to-market for promising new technologies, specifically touting the development of a new Cummins, 6-liter diesel engine.

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“We have a much deeper understanding of engine design and operation today thanks to these super computers,” Chu noted. “The question is, ‘How can we help American businesses and consumers operating in very competitive worldwide markets?’ And one easy answer is the use of these super computers to simulate performance like in cars, trucks, engines and tires the way we already to aircraft like the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. By doing so, we believe we can reduce design cycles by up to 50 percent and save companies a lot of money.”

Other DOE initiatives Chu points to include an increased emphasis on trailer aerodynamics– including new, “under tray” aerodynamic systems designed to smooth air flow under a conventional, 53-foot dry van, particularly under the trailer’s axles. In doing so, Chu says, studies have found fleets can increase fuel economy by another 5 to 10 percent in conventional long-haul applications.

In terms of emerging technology, Chu said that high U.S. reserves of natural gas make LNG and CNG fuel options a “no brainer” for the trucking industry. But noted that infrastructure is lagging and acquisition costs remain high while ROI for such systems is still in the two- to four-year range.

“Our push here is to drive natural gas technologies to get to a point where acquisition costs drop by 30 or 40 percent and ROI falls down to two years or less for these vehicles,” he added. “And those efforts are being helped by the dramatic infrastructure enhancements already under way: By year’s end there will be 275 new, LNG fueling stations located every 150 miles or so along the country’s major trucking routes with another 17 stations under construction.”

Looking toward long-term solutions, Chu says promising research indicates biofuels could become a viable option one day. Using this approach, Chu says, various forms of organic matter, from fast-growing grasses to waste products can be mixed with yeasts and bacteria to create chemical reactions that create chemicals very similar in form and function to gasoline or diesel fuel. While stressing that these efforts are in the early stage and a long way from maturity, Chu notes that research is far enough along, and results are encouraging enough to begin construction on a pilot plant to explore mass production of these fuels.

Electric vehicles remain a promising option for many urban fleets, Chu says. And recent battery developments are increasing the efficiency of all-electric vehicles considerably. “The current problem here is battery price,” Chu explains. “Currently, we’re talking about $10,000 to $15,000 for battery systems for these vehicles. We’ve just seen the introduction of 400 kilowatt battery system, which doubles the power density of electric drive vehicles. And the Department of Energy’s focus going forward will be to reduce the cost of these battery systems from $600 per kilowatt hour where we are today, to $150 per kilowatt hour by 2020.”

Chu notes that as emerging nations burn more and more diesel and gasoline, diversity will become increasingly important for truck fleets in coming years. “And like fleet managers, I am unimpressed by technology for technology’s sake,” he added. “I firmly believe that the Department of Energy must do whatever it can to help manufacturers and fleets get to the point where any additional costs added to a vehicle to boost fuel economy must be paying for itself in 3 or 4 years. This is what we are focusing on when it comes to electric or hybrid vehicles or just plain better conventional diesel engines and hope that competition between companies helps feed this effort. In the last three to five years we’ve seen a lot of progress from the private sector in partnering with us and we hope to continue that trend moving forward.”