A person sits behind the wheel of a car with a laptop reading out statistics about the car's inner workings.
Ohio State and Michigan Tech are part of a U.S. Department of Energy initiative to support connected technologies for vehicle efficiency. Credit: Sarah Atkinson / Michigan Technological University

This story was originally published on Centered, the Energy News Network’s publication about technology’s role in fighting climate change and other daunting problems, with a focus on the Midwest.

Connected, autonomous, and electric vehicle technologies are all the rage. A lot of transportation research and development in this space is happening in the Midwest, and it’s not all at the corporate level. 

In some cases, the young minds at universities and their mentors in the lab are leading the charge. Some of the newest transportation efficiency innovations are racing directly from university to market with a boost from a federal government program intended to speed technology commercialization. In fact, some of them might already be in your car.

Michigan Tech’s NEXTCAR vehicle. Credit: Sarah Atkinson / Michigan Technological University

Seeking ‘unprecedented’ fuel efficiency gains

Michigan Technological University and Ohio State University were among the four teams recently chosen to receive funding for the second phase of the NEXTCAR (Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles) program from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy initiative.

Nearly five years ago, ARPA-E challenged research teams to propose projects to reduce fuel and energy consumption by using automated and connected vehicle technologies. The program provides real-world support for next-gen car technology development. But the program’s main differentiating point is the focus on using connected technologies for energy efficiency instead of for the usual navigation and safety applications.

NEXTCAR aims to achieve unprecedented fuel economy gains of 20%. That’s quite a tall order, according to program participants.

“If the CEO of an auto company went to the head of the engine development and said, ‘Please come up with a plan for having within the next three years engines that are 20% more efficient,’ the chief engineer would probably say, ‘I retire,’” Giorgio Rizzoni, director of the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research, said with a laugh.

“We’re talking about something that is an order of magnitude more than you can do just by improving the individual bits and pieces under the hood.”

The first phase of NEXTCAR, which focused on all classes of vehicles — cars, trucks, and buses — ended last year. The newly funded second phase focuses on light-duty passenger vehicles and those with a higher level of automation — level 4, which indicates a fully autonomous vehicle that does not need human intervention in most circumstances. The energy consumption reduction criteria also bumped up to 30% for the second phase.

The first phase involved a mild hybrid, or multimode hybrid, which is a combustion-engine vehicle that also has an electric motor. The second phase involves creating technologies for a battery-electric, a plug-in electric, and a hybrid electric vehicle. Thus, goals transition from achieving better “fuel economy” to achieving greater “energy efficiency.”

Removing the traditional combustion powertrain, specifically the engine and transmission, makes some aspects of the tech development easier, Rizzoni said. But it also presents the challenge of trying to achieve 30% efficiency increases on full EVs, which inherently are already more energy efficient than most vehicles on the road.

The work comes with a major caveat: The projects shouldn’t sacrifice mobility, safety, reliability, or comfort for the fuel and energy-efficiency gains. Plus, the concept has to work in the real world, not just in a lab.

“It’s easy to say this works on paper, but … how we make this work in the real world is a significant challenge,” said Jeff Naber, director of the Advanced Power Systems Research Center at Michigan Technological University. “Vehicles are a pretty complex system. They already are highly optimized so trying to achieve benefits above what is already a high-technology vehicle is a challenging activity.” 

Credit: Sarah Atkinson / Michigan Technological University

Making a connection

Connected technologies allow vehicles to communicate with each other or with surrounding infrastructure. For example, a car’s adaptive cruise control could pick up a signal when a traffic light half a mile down the road will turn red. Typically that feature is considered a safety measure because it gives the driver advance warning to slow down. But the same technology also can be used to harness fuel and energy efficiency.

“If you knew when the light was going to be green and how traffic is moving, you could adjust the velocity of the vehicle in such a way you do not stop at the light but keep going,” Rizzoni said. “You could achieve fuel economy improvement if you would never stop at a red light. … The rebuilding of the energy to get the velocity consumes a lot of fuel.”

Anticipating optimal velocity for fuel efficiency in this way is called ecodriving. Autonomous vehicles can automatically use ecodriving practices without human intervention.

Expanding on that concept, autonomous vehicles know their destination in advance. With the right algorithms and software, they could cater routes and operations to optimize fuel and energy efficiency for entire trips. For example, they could automatically avoid construction zones and re-route around accidents, in addition to optimally using electricity stored in the battery.

Hybrid vehicles, for instance, become more efficient “by using electric energy in urban situations rather than highway situations,” Naber said. The technology “would hold off using the available electric energy until it is most beneficial for the vehicle.” 

The NEXTCAR teams develop algorithms and use computer simulations to prove their concepts work. The next step is to use the algorithms to develop software that will be incorporated into a vehicle. Ultimately, the software should optimize operations to make a vehicle travel more efficiently for an entire route, not just a small portion.

“We’re making the vehicle more intelligent externally,” Naber said. “Much of the previous work in powertrains is reactive. It knows it needs to respond to the driver and do something. Now with the additional perception that autonomy gives, we can say what’s going to happen in the future and how we manage energy better in future.”

These high-powered electronics need to fit comfortably in a vehicle and the autonomous computations need to be lightning fast. “It must be something that doesn’t require a big supercomputer to run and that decisions can be made in tens or hundreds of milliseconds,” Rizzoni said.

The Ohio State University NEXTCAR team with ARPA-E representatives. Credit: Ohio State University

From concept to market

ARPA-E is a unique Department of Energy initiative because its funding is specifically devoted to propelling tech toward commercialization. Other DOE departments’ grants might allow for concept exploration and advancement without marketable results. However, the technology-to-market aspect is a priority for ARPA-E funding recipients.

recent study showed that ARPA-E funding gives cleantech startups an advantage in innovating and achieving business success. It has a similar effect for the universities involved in the NEXTCAR project. In addition to the funding, the university teams work with an ARPA-E mentor. The projects also involve industry partners who carry out the commercialization by integrating the innovations into their products.

Rizzoni said the Ohio State team would “absolutely not” be able to do this kind of advanced tech research and development project without the ARPA-E support.

“They enable high-risk, high-reward research,” he said.

Private companies that participate in the program also benefit because they get faster, lower-risk, lower-cost access to cutting-edge technologies. The automotive manufacturers and technology suppliers — including Auburn Hills, Michigan-based BorgWarner, Detroit-based General Motors, and Stellantis — work with the NEXTCAR teams on testing the technologies, providing feedback and guidance, and putting the tech into automobiles.

“We’re not waiting until the end. There will be continuous involvement in the development of this technology and passing this technology to our partners. And with them providing us input on what they need and what they see as value and how they see it would best fit into their current architecture and plans,” Naber said.

The university teams obviously want to get their technologies into the manufacturers’ vehicles. But they’re also investigating some nontraditional or lesser-known pathways to technology markets, such as service suppliers.

Credit: Sarah Atkinson / Michigan Technological University

Educational edge

The NEXTCAR program provides another large benefit besides quickly bringing new, cleaner vehicle technologies to market. 

“Yes, we can help develop technology. But fundamentally, our number one product is the engineers of the future,” Rizzoni said. 

Partnering with private businesses enhances the university students’ education and fosters a talent pipeline. It allows them to contribute directly to real-world engineering and tech development. The hands-on learning is expected to provide them an edge in the business world.

“This doesn’t stop with our development. We’re educating and training the next generation of engineers to make achievements going forward in their next career step,” Naber said. “They’re going to leave here with more knowledge and be able to contribute to overall development efforts and moving technology forward.” 

And if you ask the educators to be honest, they really get a charge out of participating in the NEXTCAR project, too.

“This is the coolest project I’ve ever done,” Rizzoni said.

Katie is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. With a special focus on science and the environment, she covers a variety of topics, including waste and recycling, energy, transportation, sustainability, technology, and innovation. Her work has appeared in publications including CityLab, National Geographic, Scrap magazine, Smart Cities Dive, Transport Topics magazine, Utility Dive, and Waste Dive.