Electrified Truck Power-Train Can Cut Fuel Use in Half

DSC_0362When it comes to electric vehicles, we hear plenty about electric cars being launched into the consumer market but not too much about commercial vehicles. Maybe that’s because not too many people have to concern themselves with what type of delivery or garbage truck they are going to buy next. Nevertheless, such considerations matter, since the electrification of commercial fleets promises considerably larger efficiency gains than cars.

Four-year-old California company Wrightspeed, started by Tesla co-founder Ian Wright, has developed a technology that zeros in on a specific niche of the commercial fleet market, bringing both fuel savings and emissions mitigation for commercial fleet operators.

Coming from his background at Tesla, Wright remains convinced of the benefits of going electric, but he recognizes that EVs can be perceived as expensive in some markets. In starting Wrightspeed, he says the mission was to figure out, “How do you get more bang for your buck?” And the answer was to just focus on building power-trains for trucks.

Staying true to vehicle electrification, Wrightspeed’s power train combines powerful electric motors and batteries, but in order to cover the distances commercial trucks run, the power-train incorporates a gas-turbine range extender; the whole package is then retrofitted into vehicles from truck OEMs. While the company sources the gas-turbine extender and batteries from outside, the electric motors, inverters, transmission and control electronics are all of the company’s own design.

The nearest automobile equivalent using range extending technology is the Chevrolet Volt, and Wrightspeed’s solution shares a similar concept whereby the range-extending motor (although of an entirely different design) acts as an electricity generator for the vehicle batteries, rather than driving the wheels directly.

Of course, since Wrightspeed’s power-trains are going into trucks, the whole thing is on a much beefier scale. Wright told me, “Our motors have four times the power-to-weight ratio than anything else available.” Additionally, like most EVs, their technology uses regenerative braking — which puts energy back into the batteries every time the brakes are applied.

Consequently, Wrightspeed’s technology lends itself particularly well to commercial vehicle applications where frequent start-stop cycles occur — a feature common with a typical package delivery or garbage truck. “A thousand horsepower easily goes into the brakes of a commercial truck,” when such vehicles are brought to a stop, says Wright. In a conventional truck, that energy is wasted, but when you consider 1,000 horsepower is the equivalent of about fives times the peak horsepower of most family cars, that’s worth capturing.

The energy captured by regenerative braking is fed back into the lithium-iron phosphate batteries Wrightspeed uses — a battery chemistry particularly suitable for developing the high power necessary for their electric-drive motors. When the batteries are depleted, the range extender kicks in which is calibrated to run constantly at the most efficient speed to generate the most power. A benefit of using a gas-turbine range extender is that it runs very quietly — considerably quieter than a diesel engine, Wright said, which is a worthy attribute when trundling through residential areas.

So, what does all this add up to in terms of efficiency? Wright told me the average garbage truck travels about 130 miles a day with around 1,000 hard stops, gulping down around 14,000 gallons of diesel a year in the process. Wrightspeed’s power-trains use less than half that amount of fuel, with the added benefit of very significant emissions reductions.

This last point is very important. California’s strict standards on vehicle emissions means that a truck purchased as recently as 2006 is likely no longer compliant with emissions regulations today. By comparison, Wright says their range extending power-trains achieve a 3.5 times improvement over what California currently demands.

This allows the company to potentially tap into a lucrative market of retrofitting older existing vehicles. Wright explained to me that retrofitting commercial vehicles for emissions compliance is a $5 billion industry. And while their power-trains are expensive up front, retrofitting that 2006 truck, say, works out to be about half as expensive as upgrading to a brand new one. On top of that are the ongoing fuel savings: Wright says their technology is cost-effective for vehicles using 4,000 gallons or more of fuel per year.

Wrightspeed’s first customer was Fed-Ex, which began purchasing power-trains for some of its vehicles about a year ago. Additionally, the company is working with a north Bay Area garbage collection company, which approached Wrightspeed after recognizing its power-trains would be an optimal fit for the company’s fleet.

Last week, the company announced it will relocate from San Jose after having signed a lease with the city of Alameda, California to move into the 110,000-square-foot historical Hanger 41, at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. According to the press release, the move, “will facilitate Wrightspeed’s creation of 280 new Bay Area jobs by 2018. Wrightspeed joins a growing list of green-tech, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing companies choosing to call Alameda home.”

Picture used with permission of Wrightspeed

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Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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