Scholars at Purdue University are famed for their research into nanotechnology, security, astronomy and other intriguing topics.

Now they’re exploring an area that, while not quite as sexy, has major implications for national commerce and infrastructure: fuel efficiency in heavy-duty trucks.

Students and professors at the West Lafayette, Ind., school are working with industry liaisons from Peloton Technology, Cummins Inc., Peterbilt Motors Co. and ZF TRW to develop algorithms that can boost fuel economy through connectivity.

Professional truckers drive about 279 billion miles annually, guzzling 54.3 billion gallons of fuel, according to the American Trucking Associations. The result: intense costs for carriers and plumes of pollution for everyone else.

But the brain trust at Purdue — which includes professors of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering, as well as four graduate students — believes that technology, crowdsourcing and cloud-based communications can save the day.

“This is the ideal marriage of the public and private sectors to the mutual benefit of both,” said Suresh Garimella, executive vice president for research and partnerships at Purdue. “We anticipate the result will be a commercial and environmental success.”

Each of the 3.4 million Class 8 trucks currently on the road consumes an average of 12,886 gallons of fuel annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency has set a goal of scaling back vehicle fuel consumption by 20 percent using automated, or self-driving, technologies.

To do so, Purdue researchers are planning to test three tactics.

First, they’re investigating techniques for truck engines and transmissions to recalibrate to shifting traffic and road conditions en-route. Fitting the transportation infrastructure with sensors is one option.

Researchers are also linking multiple moving trucks via the cloud, sharing performance algorithms as well as crowdsourced traffic, road-grade maps, weather services and more.

Finally, they’re trying to improve platooning — an emerging technology in which two or more digitally tethered trucks drive in a tight formation that reduces aerodynamic drag and improves fuel efficiency.

“Trucks will be connected to the cloud, and they will be connected to each other,” said Gregory Shaver, a mechanical engineering professor at Purdue and the research team’s leader. “Through automation, we want to get the trucks closer together than human drivers could safely drive them, and we can do this because the connectivity and algorithms are inherently faster, and more accurate, than humans.”

Much of the research will occur in the Cummins Power Laboratory, which is part of the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories at Purdue.

former Purdue students work on Cummins engine

Former Purdue graduate students Sylvia Lu, left, and Mayura Halbe work in the Cummins Power Laboratory at Purdue’s Ray W. Herrick Laboratories. (Photo: Purdue University/Charles Jischke)

Widespread truck platooning will take time to roll out — largely because the tactic requires substantial automation. Legal, liability and ethical issues need to be resolved first, according to Antti Lindstrӧm, an analyst at IHS Markit

“The trucks will still require a person in the cab anyway, to steer it to and from the highway, from the warehouse and store etc.,” Lindstrӧm said. “It’s kind of like how an airline pilot is needed for the taxiing, liftoff and landing — it’s just the ‘middle part’ that can be automated safely, for the longest time anyway.”

The researchers and their industry partners are aiming to keep costs low for any new technology developed — with a soft cap of $3,000 on commercial implementation. This way, innovations could have a faster runway into the marketplace.

“I believe that some of the technology can get into the product quickly,” said Edmund Hodzen, director of Advanced Engineering Control Systems at Cummins. “The exciting aspect is that it will take advantage of existing data connection and thus will be adding little to the cost of a truck.”

Peloton, which specializes in platoon technology, is also hoping for a bottom-line boost from any fuel-saving technology produced out of Purdue.

“Our current goal is that additional gains can be provided as a software upgrade to our current systems, and sold via the same business model,” said Steve Boyd, co-founder of Peloton. “A longer-term project like this gives us time to step back and think creatively outside the box.”

As an added bonus, the work at Purdue could help funnel student researchers into future jobs in the trucking industry.

“It is an opportunity to become engaged in meaningful technology development with a world technology leader,” Hodzen said. “Many times these collaborations lead to internships and employment with Cummins.”

The Purdue project is funded by $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, also known as ARPA-E. The division’s Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Autonomous On-Road Vehicles (NEXTCAR) program will support three years of research beginning in March, concluding with testing on highways and urban roads.

But similar projects could be at risk in the new Trump administration, which has many researchers worried about funding freezes, Lindstrӧm said. ARPA-E has pledged $32 million in funding for 10 NEXTCAR projects.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Lindstrӧm said. “The concept itself will benefit everybody in the end, but as always, ‘who’s going to pay for its development’ is the big question.”

Related: Toyota Eyeing Hydrogen Fuel Cell Heavy-Duty Truck Development

About The Author

Deanna Isaacs

Deanna Isaacs is a Seattle-based automotive reporter. Prior to becoming an automotive reporter, Isaacs was an award-winning local newspaper reporter. She can be found on Twitter: @Deanna_Isaacs.

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