A Purdue University research team is launching a project in conjunction with Cummins Inc. and others aimed at reducing fuel consumption in freight-moving trucks. The goal is to develop control systems that can interconnect trucks with cloud-based information and other vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Energy has granted the Purdue team $5 million as part of a three-year, nationwide project to scale back vehicle fuel use by 20 percent. Led by Purdue professor of mechanical engineering Greg Shaver, the group is focusing specifically on developing communications algorithms that will directly manage trucks’ engines and transmissions and connect them with other vehicles, all while on the road. In this scenario the trucks would be semi-autonomous.

“There will still be drivers in these trucks, and their hands will still be on the steering wheel, but pedal actuation, like braking and acceleration, will be done by a computer part of the time,” Shaver explains. “We’re going to do that by having connectivity that allows trucks to communicate with each other as well as with other vehicles on the road and use information from the cloud to understand what’s coming up down the road.”

The algorithms will allow engine use to be recalibrated in real time, based on information the truck’s driver is unlikely to predict, such as grade changes, traffic and weather.  The system is also expected to make driving safer.

“The basic constraint to our ability to do advanced controls of the engine system while it operates is that the computing power is very small relative even to a laptop,” observes Ed Hodzen, director of Advanced Dynamics and Systems Controls at Cummins. “But with this project, we get to utilize off-board computational equipment, effectively removing all the constraints.”

In addition to Cummins, other partners in the Purdue project include Peterbilt Motors Co., Peloton Technology, ZF TRW and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Peloton brings expertise in a technique called platooning, more commonly thought of as drafting in the auto and bicycle racing arenas, into the mix. Shaver says that’s where the cloud-connected vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication takes on a critical role.

“We get the vehicles close enough to see the savings that comes by way of reduced aerodynamic drag on both the trucks. You need to get them closer than the truck drivers can manage over a long period of time, but we can semi-automate them so we can safely get that drafting benefit.”

Team members are eager to get started.

“I’ve got a lot of engineers that are very interested in working on this, because it’s such a leading-edge project for us,” says Cummins’ Hodzen.

Shaver says Purdue’s team of researchers and grad students will run tests on a Cummins X15 engine in the Cummins Power Laboratory at Purdue’s Herrick Laboratories. NREL will assist in track and roadway testing. Ultimately the Purdue team’s research will be melded with that of nine other projects the Department of Energy is simultaneously funding to reduce fuel consumption and the overall environmental impact of vehicles.

“We’re working with our partners to achieve technology for real use. It allows us to stay ahead in the innovation stage, makes a positive impact on employment opportunities and takes our students beyond classroom learning.”

Cummins’ Ed Hodzen describes the benefit of the system in a highway scenario.

Purdue professor of mechanical engineering Greg Shaver explains how connectivity will make safe platooning possible.

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