DOE puts more fuel into advanced vehicle research

Source: Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 7, 2018

The Energy Department yesterday announced $80 million in research awards to advanced vehicle technology projects, including work on next-generation batteries aimed at making electric vehicles close in cost to gasoline-powered models before the end of the next decade.

Some of the 42 grants continue existing research campaigns, such as advancing fast-vehicle charging technologies and biofuels for diesel engines. But others reflect newer priorities or issues, said Michael Berube, director of the Vehicle Technologies Office at DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

ABB Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., for example, received $1.7 million to develop a “real-time cyber-attack and mitigation system” to protect electric vehicles, vehicle charging equipment and utilities’ networks against hackers, reflecting growing anxiety about the capability of cyberattackers. The Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-backed nonprofit, got $2 million to retrofit cybersecurity protection for vehicle charging stations.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh received $1.5 million for research on drones, delivery robots and driverless cars with the goal of lowering costs of goods transportation in the “last mile” to customers’ locations.

And $16.8 million in all went to a group of DOE and university laboratories and private companies to develop batteries that lower or eliminate the use of cobalt, a costly, foreign-sourced material whose future availability could jeopardize advanced battery development, DOE said.

Some existing research areas got a bigger emphasis, including efficiency improvements for off-road vehicles, as well as farming and construction equipment.

Cummins Inc. in Columbus, Ind., was awarded $2.5 million and the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Mich., got $2.4 million for work on advanced “platooning.” This is the use of cameras, radars, and other communications and sensor devices aboard trucks enabling them to travel close together in a convoy on highways, accelerating and braking in sync.

The grant recipients will make matching contributions of 20 percent to 50 percent of the award amounts, and a U.S. Army tank and vehicle research and engineering center will contribute $1.8 million, DOE said. Most of the projects will run three years.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry framed the grants within the administration’s agenda in the announcement, saying, “Improving the affordability of transportation for American consumers and businesses keeps our economy moving.” Economic growth, energy security and consumer choice are the targets.

“By investing in a broad range of technologies, DOE is ensuring America remains at the forefront of innovation,” Perry added. In the Obama administration, the targets for the vehicle technology program also highlighted greenhouse gas reduction, a climate policy objective that has been jettisoned.

“The goals themselves have not changed,” Berube said, speaking of the battery research support. “If we achieve those goals, they would reduce costs. They would improve efficiency. And they would also reduce CO2.

“What they all have in common is, how do we improve the affordability of all the new technologies that can provide additional vehicle choices that are highly energy efficient?” Berube said.

The $80 million grant figure isn’t significant compared with what vehicle manufacturers are committing to research, development and production of battery-driven vehicles and self-driving technologies. Ford Motor Co., for example, said it will spend $11 billion to turn out 16 all-electric cars within five years.

Technology is only one of the hurdles for widespread penetration of electric cars, analysts note. Investment in the deployment of fast-charging systems and, ultimately, driver acceptance are also potential deal makers or breakers.

Berube said the DOE support is at critical junctures of technology challenge, and leverages advanced research capabilities at DOE laboratories such as supercomputing power.

Advanced batteries are an example, he said. The DOE program’s goals are to reduce the cost of electric vehicle batteries to less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, increase vehicle range to 300 miles between charges and decrease charging time to less than 15 minutes by 2028.

The next-generation lithium-ion battery should be available by the middle of the decade, he said. “We were over $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2008,” he said. “We’ve had great success.”