Following rapid developments among tech and car companies, the U.S. government announced this week that it is moving ahead with an ambitious project to reduce energy consumption in the transportation sector by employing new technology that motorists have already been using for greater convenience and improving safety.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), part of the Department of Energy (DOE), will fund 10 projects with a total of $32 million that aim to reduce individual vehicle consumption by 20 percent. The ventures will not deploy fully autonomous technology, but they will use equipment and tools that will be vital in transitioning the transportation sector to self-driving fleets.
The U.S. government announced this week that it is moving ahead with an ambitious project to reduce oil consumption in the transportation sector by employing new technology that motorists have already been using for greater convenience.
The projects, called NEXTCAR, plan to employ automated and connective technology in order to boost efficiency. Some examples of technologies ARPA-E will use include adaptive cruise control and cloud-based routing. Crucially, NEXTCAR will boost vehicles’ data and computer capabilities in order for them to utilize the most efficient route and process their surroundings in the most effective manner. One example of intelligent routing system similar to what NEXTCAR projects do is WAZE, an app that provides real-time traffic information, including accidents and location of police. The service has become very popular with users as it helps motorists find the most direct and least congested route.
“ARPA-E is always interested in taking advantage of advanced technology, which might be developed for other purposes, to improve energy efficiency,” Dr. Eric Rohlfing, Deputy Director for Technology at ARPA-E, told The Fuse. “With NEXTCAR, we see the opportunity that connected and automated vehicle technologies, now being developed primarily for safety reasons, can work effectively with advanced powertrains to save large amounts of energy—we anticipate a 20 percent savings. The information that a connected vehicle will have from its surroundings and other vehicles will provide an unprecedented ability to predict the optimal vehicle and powertrain settings to minimize energy use.”
Public universities will be the main beneficiaries of the DOE’s funding, but the one private company receiving money—GM—will be a major contributor in the long term to the transition to alternative vehicles, such as EVs and driverless cars. ARPA-E will partner with 10 different outfits for this project, with GM receiving one of the biggest grants at $4.2 million. GM plans to utilize new technological developments—InfoRich Vehicle Dynamics and Powertrain Controls—to improve efficiency of traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.
The biggest recipient will be Ohio State University, which is slated to receive $5 million. The University will focus on using novel ignition and air-management control technology along with connectivity and level 2 automation to improve fuel efficiency. Other public universities involved in the project include Penn State, Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan, California, Riverside, and California, Berkeley. The DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which will receive $3.4 million, is poised to help save energy through optimal routing by avoiding accidents and congestion. Just as critical, the Lab will use plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, further reducing demand for oil.
ARPA-E’s innovative track record
ARPA-E has received criticisms over some funding going to failed schemes. But projects supported through ARPA-E are supposed to take risks in order to innovate and enable high-risk, high-reward emerging technologies in transportation and for the electric grid. With that mission, it’s highly likely that some projects will ultimately fail and not find commercial success, as the entire purpose of the Agency is to provide grants to projects that would otherwise not get funding. Still, since its inception seven years ago, ARPA-E, which is modeled after the Department of Defense’s DARPA program which helped develop innovations including GPS, radar, and the internet, has had a large track record of success.
The commercialization of energy and transportation technologies is a long-term phenomenon that can be very expensive and risky, but given the enormous task of reducing oil dependence, partnerships established through programs like NEXTCAR and other ARPA-E projects will be very vital.
The Agency, in its efforts to lead on reducing oil demand in the transportation sector, has focused on reducing the cost of compressing natural gas for vehicles, while also improving storage tanks. Furthermore, ARPA-E has been involved in developing energy-rich feedstocks for biofuels and improving batteries for electric vehicles. ARPA-E has facilitated 540 projects, providing funding of roughly $1.3 billion. In a publication celebrating its first seven years, the Agency earlier this year wrote: “ARPA-E’s project teams cumulatively have published 1,104 peer reviewed technical papers that have been cited 13,518 times, and have been awarded 101 patents. Many teams have successfully leveraged ARPA-E’s investment: 36 have started new companies, 60 have continued their technology development with other government support, and 45 have cumulatively raised $1.25 billion in publically reported funding from the private sector to bring their technologies into commercial applications.”
The commercialization of energy and transportation technologies is a long-term phenomenon that can be very expensive and risky, so given the enormous task of reducing oil dependence, partnerships established through programs like NEXTCAR and other ARPA-E projects will be very vital.