Navigant Research Blog

We’re Asking the Wrong Question about Electrification

— September 1, 2015

At the recent Fleet Technology Expo in Long Beach, California, Tesla Motors’ co-founder and founder of Wrightspeed, Ian Wright, delivered a keynote to the gathering of fleet managers, suppliers, and consultants that turned the conventional wisdom of vehicle electrification on its ear. While mandates like the California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program and various federal and state tax incentives seek to displace millions of fossil fuel-burning vehicles with electric equivalents, Wright says we’re asking entirely the wrong question. Rather than asking how to maximize the efficiency of the mass of vehicles, Wright said we should be asking: “How do we save the most fuel per vehicle per year?”

On the surface, those might seem like the same question. However, when you actually start doing the math, the resulting answer is quite different. Vehicle emissions, including CO2, are directly related to how much fuel is consumed. Unfortunately, most people tend to think of efficiency in miles per gallon (mpg). When we plot fuel consumed versus mpg, the consumption curve asymptotically approaches zero as mileage goes up. In fact, the curve of incremental fuel savings flattens out dramatically at about 35–40 mpg. Beyond that, increasing mileage comes at a very high cost with little to actually show for it in terms of reductions in total energy use and emissions.

The big gains come when you start from very low mpg, where each incremental improvement yields much larger reductions in fuel consumption. That’s where Wright has focused his efforts in recent years. Wright joined Tesla co-founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning and financial backer Elon Musk early on in 2003 to help the tech entrepreneurs with the technical aspects of actually building a car. While Wright left Tesla long before the Roadster finally went to customers in 2008, he continued working on electrification.

Different Solutions for Different Applications

Wrightspeed has developed a micro-turbine, range-extended powertrain system for medium and heavy duty trucks, the vehicles with the biggest potential for fuel savings because they use the most fuel. These big trucks typically only achieve 3–4 mpg running on diesel and even less on natural gas. While the Nissan LEAF or Chevrolet Volt can save individual owners hundreds of dollars a year in fuel compared to similar gasoline-fueled models, the actual amount of fuel saved is relatively small.

A refuse truck is an ideal application for hybridization since it operates at relatively low speeds and makes hundreds of stops and starts per day. In order to get the 130–150-mile range needed for its daily rounds, a fully electric version would need to carry so many batteries it would consume more than half its payload; however, a plug-in hybrid with 30 miles of electric range is entirely viable. Wrightspeed developed its geared traction drive, a 250 hp unit that integrates a traction motor, two-speed gearbox, and inverter, to provide propulsion and regenerative braking. In combination with a small 80 kW turbine range extender sized to run at its optimal efficiency, Wright claims the system delivers a 50% reduction in fuel consumption, saving $35,000 in fuel and $20,000 in maintenance per vehicle annually with a 3–4-year payback time.

Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report projects that a wide variety of solutions will be required to meet future efficiency and emissions targets. In order to get the maximum overall benefit, we need to ask Wright’s question and pick the best solution for each application—not one solution for every application.


In a Connected World, Cars Talk to Buildings

— August 20, 2015

It wasn’t so very long ago that communications were largely limited to living beings, whether it was birds, whales, dogs, or people. Our devices were largely mute, performing functions when requested by a button or switch, but otherwise isolated from each other. The development of high-bandwidth wired and wireless communications over the past 2 decades has led to a corresponding transformation with the development of devices that communicate and often act without human intervention. While we are still a long way from Skynet, ubiquitous connectivity is enabling a wide range of possibilities that can help reduce our energy demands in the coming years.

Connected Thermostats, Cars, and More

The old-fashioned set it and forget and even the newer programmable thermostats are being supplanted by wireless, cloud-connected versions like the Nest. In place of a simple mechanical thermocouple, these newer units include sensors to detect motion, light, and humidity, as well as Wi-Fi connections, to the Nest servers to take advantage of big data machine learning and remote control from smartphone apps. By tracking usage patterns and local weather conditions, these thermostats automatically create custom control profiles to provide optimum comfort and minimize energy use.

Ever since the advent of the modern plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) at the turn of the last decade, many of these vehicles have been able to connect to remote servers to get localized electric utility rates. When plugged in at night, they can delay charging until off-peak rates begin, reducing the load on the grid and saving costs for owners. Beginning in 2016, the first cars will start rolling out with vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems that enable cars to broadcast safety-related messages to other nearby vehicles. According to Navigant Research’s Connected Vehicles report, about 80%–90% of new light duty vehicles in North America and Western Europe are expected to be using the technology by 2025.

Researchers, including those at the Detroit technology incubator, NextEnergy Center, are working on new ways to connect these and many other disparate systems to leverage even more information and harness the energy storage in idle PEVs for additional savings. Among the numerous projects at NextEnergy are studies of vehicle-to-building (V2B) and microgrid systems. A small house at the center has been equipped with a direct current wiring system and appliances that enable easier and more efficient energy transfer between the rooftop solar panels, the interior of the house, and the battery electric vehicle parked outside. Another study is developing a model for how many PEVs would be needed to get an optimum balance between vehicle cost and energy cost savings from reducing peak demand for commercial buildings.

The NextEnergy Center will host a 1-day conference on September 9, 2015 called the V2B Mashup. The event includes panels and presentations with speakers from Cisco, General Motors, Visteon, the U.S. Department of Energy, DTE Energy, and more. Seating is limited and online registration is available at


High-Accuracy Mapping: An Opportunity for the Post Office?

— June 23, 2015

Telescopers_webSynergy is one of the most overused and abused words in business. Whenever this word is uttered, it’s time to break out a big hunk of salt. However, at the recent TU-Automotive Detroit conference in Detroit, an actual synergistic opportunity popped up in the course of discussion. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—and by extension, other postal services globally—could play an important role in the future of automated driving. According to Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report, nearly 95 million vehicles with some autonomous capability will be on the world’s roads by 2035.

High-Resolution and High-Accuracy Mapping

One of the most common topics to arise during the 2-day gathering of people involved in automated driving and connectivity was the need for high-resolution and high-accuracy mapping data. Alain De Taeye, management board member at TomTom, gave a keynote presentation on the requirements for highly automated driving systems. While sensors including a global positioning system (GPS) that can detect the immediate surroundings are clearly a critical component, they are insufficient for robust automated control. Maps can help extend visibility well beyond the line of sight of either the driver or sensor system.

More importantly, the combination of high-definition 3D maps and sensors enables greater capability than either on its own. For example, GPS sensors are notoriously unreliable in the urban canyons where automated vehicles offer some of their most important potential benefits. As satellite signals bounce around off tall buildings set closely together, a GPS-only system often places the user far from their actual location. On the other hand, cameras and LIDAR sensors can contribute to a fused real-time map of the surroundings that can be correlated with stored maps for validation and provide more accurate and precise location information.

De Taeye discussed the sources of data used by TomTom and other map providers, including HERE and Google. By blending data from satellite imagery, government data, real-time crowdsourced information, and fleets of vehicles that traverse the actual roads, maps are constantly updated. De Taeye emphasized the need for continuous updates on road information to ensure accuracy as well as precision, which is where the USPS could come to the rescue. Even companies as large as Google have practical limits on how frequently they can drive down each road.

Capturing Data with Future USPS Vehicles

Ryan Simpson, an electrical engineer with the USPS, attended the conference to learn about some of the new technologies that could potentially be put to use in future service vehicles. With more than 150,000 daily delivery vehicles and another 100,000 vehicles of various form factors, the USPS has the largest commercial vehicle fleet in the world. Those 150,000 delivery vehicles traverse a huge proportion of the roads in the United States 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. The USPS is currently in the process of defining a next-generation delivery vehicle to replace its rapidly aging fleet. If the new vehicles were equipped with some cameras and sensors, they could capture data with much higher frequency than any of the existing mapping companies. Real world data about everything, including road construction, bridge problems, and even potholes, could be updated daily.

Given the persistent financial difficulties of the USPS, providing fresh and reliable navigational data to mapping companies could provide a significant revenue stream that helps support a very important service to the U.S. population. At the same time, such data would also help to enable automated driving systems. This would be genuine synergy.


The Information Reality behind the Intelligent Building

— June 9, 2015

Big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are the buzz when it comes to intelligent buildings. A slew of vendors are tagging their solutions and coming to market with a message of cost-effective intelligence that will redefine how we live and work in buildings.  But are we ready?

In mid-May, I attended Haystack Connect, an event that brought together a vibrant vendor community tackling the reality of the development of the intelligent building.  The panels and conversations circled on a vision for open-source data modelling via Project Haystack. According to Project Haystack’s website, the project is an open source initiative to streamline working with data from the IoT and to standardize semantic data models and web services with the goal of making it easier to unlock value from the vast quantity of data being generated by the smart devices that permeate our homes, buildings, factories, and cities. The applications the project focuses on include automation, control, energy, HVAC, lighting, and other environmental systems.

Two lessons learned: First off, big data is a marketing tagline, but building owners want to know what it does for them. Second, the IoT can generate a whole lot of information, but the key is accuracy and action.

Big Data: More Isn’t Necessarily Better

The demand for intelligence is ubiquitous, from smartphones to smart watches, and the notion of data-driven decision-making is helping to accelerate customer demand for smart buildings. Getting the data from large existing buildings and making sense of what it means across an enterprise is no small feat. As one speaker put it, “This problem is not the domain of the data scientist.”  In other words, there is building technology and engineering expertise that has to be a part of the equation. In the Project Haystack world, this is about cleaning and processing system information with consistent approaches via tags that speak the same language. Without common naming, analytics can hit a wall.

The Promise of Data Granularity

The trajectory for device connectivity is impressive, and underlying the evolution in technology adoption is the maturation of cost-effective tools that make actionable building intelligence accessible to an ever-growing audience.  Wireless sensors and controllers can not only add granularity to the assessment of building performance, but also open the door to smaller facilities that have been out of reach for the legacy building controls industry.  The exposure of new applications to a wider audience is a critical step in the process of market maturation for smart buildings. As these solutions become adopted across customer segments, market awareness and business value will only increase.


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