Engines lab receives $1.4 million to improve delivery vehicle energy efficiency

Will&student_labThe University of Minnesota’s Thomas E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory (MERL) has received $1.4 million to research ways to boost the energy efficiency of cloud-connected delivery vehicles. The funding was awarded by the NEXTCAR Program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

The U’s NEXTCAR project researchers are partnering with UPS and electric vehicle manufacturing company Workhorse to improve the energy efficiency of medium-duty delivery vehicles through real-time powertrain optimization using two-way vehicle-to-cloud connectivity.

“UPS has more than 100,000 vehicles that drive 1.4 million miles per year. Small changes can make a big difference in vehicle efficiencies,” says Will Northrop, MERL director and mechanical engineering associate professor. “For example, in the past the company used big data analytics to study left turns. Developing routes for the delivery vehicles that avoided left turns saved 3 million gallons of fuel and 32,000 tons of carbon dioxide in one year.”

Large delivery fleet operators already use extensive data analytics to assign routes for minimizing energy consumption. In this project, the team will further improve the energy efficiency of UPS’s series hybrid-electric vehicles by optimizing battery state of charge and engine operating strategy in coordination with intelligent eco-routing.

Using cloud connectivity, the vehicle will periodically download the most efficient powertrain calibrations based on external data, like traffic and weather, collected while the vehicle is en route.

The interdisciplinary project team includes mechanical engineering researchers who will test the performance and efficiencies of the engine used in the vehicle and computer scientists who will examine the vast amounts of data.

“These engines generate a very large amount of data. There are hundreds of variables measured every second,” says Shashi Shekhar, a computer science and engineering professor and NEXTCAR team member. “If we can analyze the data, we can find very interesting and useful patterns, which can help us reduce fuel consumption and emissions.”

The overall goal of the research is to reduce energy usage in the Workhorse-produced UPS vehicles by 20 percent.

Much of the work on the project will be conducted at the MERL facility, which is dedicated to engines, alternative fuels, and emissions research. The newly renovated, 6,000-square-foot lab opened in 2013 and is located near the U’s East Bank campus. The lab is named in honor of former mechanical engineering professor Thomas E. Murphy, who was the founding director of the engines program at the U of M.

Northrop says that the U of M has long been a leader in engines research, but MERL brings it to a new level.

“A significant investment was made in our new facility to ensure that we stay at the forefront of technology needed to develop the next generation of clean and efficient engines,” he says. “Now that investment is paying off by bringing in federal funds and industry partnerships to address the global challenge of reducing energy usage.”

Posted in Engines, Freight, Technology, Transportation research

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