Credit: Steve Jurvetson / Creative Commons

Passenger safety and convenience has until now been the primary driver behind advances in autonomous vehicle technology. Now the federal government is hoping to leverage that work into making those vehicles more fuel efficient.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $32 million in funding for 10 projects around the country that look to make automated vehicles — from passenger cars to tractor trailers; internal combustion engines to plug-in electric vehicles — more fuel efficient. Nearly $20 million of that was awarded to five universities and one company in the Midwest.

The program — known as the Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Autonomous On-Road Vehicles, or NEXTCAR — aims to reduce individual vehicle energy usage by 20 percent.

Christopher Atkinson, NEXTCAR program director, says safety and convenience technology is “well underway” in vehicles that are increasingly using automation features.

“The part missing from our point of view is how to turn these technologies into what we consider the greater good of improving fuel efficiency of any one vehicle, and by extension the whole vehicle fleet,” he said. “That’s a unique area that we’ve carved out as an agency.”

Connected and automated vehicle (CAV) technology uses on-board or cloud-based sensors to help vehicles react to the surrounding environment to ensure the safety of — and creative convenience for — drivers. The NEXTCAR program aims to build off that to make vehicles more fuel efficient through features like cruise control, how vehicles stop and start from traffic signals and when engines turn on and off.

Atkinson said the technology overlap between safety and mobility and energy use is at this point “loosely understood.”

Who would benefit?

Atkinson added that the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is “fuel agnostic” as it pursues this research.

“We wish to see energy consumption reduced, it doesn’t matter to us what fuels people choose,” he said.

Therefore, the NEXTCAR program awarded projects focused on a range of vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks that run on diesel, plug-in hybrid electric buses that run on natural gas, medium-duty delivery vans that run on gasoline and passenger cars and trucks with internal combustion engines and hybrids.

The Midwest funding recipients are the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, Purdue University, Michigan Technological University, the University of Minnesota and General Motors.

For example, Purdue and University of Minnesota researchers are focusing on heavy-duty diesel trucks and medium-duty delivery vehicles, respectively.

Purdue is working with companies in the private sector on a concept known as “efficient truck platooning,” which allows semi-trucks to correspond with each other while on the road and use more fuel-efficient driving techniques.

Detroit-based General Motors will develop “InfoRich” vehicle dynamic and powertrain technologies for internal combustion engines, which is applied during stopping and starting, finding the most efficient travel route and “intelligent cruising” that accounts for various road conditions.

The company is also partnering with Michigan Tech to make EVs and plug-in hybrids use energy more efficiently. The Michigan Tech team will be using automated driving technology in the Chevrolet Volt 2 to decrease energy use by up to 20 percent and extend the vehicles’ driving range.

“A standard GPS system can tell you about distance traveled and expected speed limits and give you a projection of how long it takes to get there. By utilizing more information, including traffic patterns and simulating the traffic environment, we can better estimate how much energy it will take to travel that distance,” said Jeffrey Naber, a professor at Michigan Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics and principal investigator on the project.

By working on the Volt 2, Naber said the advances could apply to other EV and hybrid makes and models. Reaching the market is expected to take “years, not decades,” he added.

“Drivers don’t necessarily operate their vehicle in the most efficient manner,” Naber said. “As we begin to do driver-assist functions, how do we manage (vehicles) to make sure they are operating in the most efficient mode and get us from point A to point B with the least amount of energy consumption?”

Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.