Engines lab receives $1.4M grant to improve delivery vehicle energy efficiency

Donation and state funding were critical to securing federal funding and industry partnerships

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (09/11/2017) — The University of Minnesota Thomas E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory announced that it has been awarded $1.4 million in funding from the NEXTCAR Program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to research ways to boost the energy efficiency of cloud-connected delivery vehicles.

The University of Minnesota NEXTCAR researchers are partnering with UPS and electric vehicle manufacturing company Workhorse to improve the energy efficiency of medium-duty delivery vehicles through real-time powertrain optimization using two-way vehicle-to-cloud connectivity.

Small changes can make a big difference

“UPS has more than 100,000 vehicles that drive 1.4 million miles per year. Small changes can make a big difference in vehicle efficiencies,” said Will Northrop, director of the Murphy Engine Research Lab and mechanical engineering associate professor. “For example, in the past the company used big data analytics to study left turns. Developing routes for the delivery vehicles that avoided left turns saved 3 million gallons of fuel and 32,000 tons of carbon dioxide in one year,” he added.

Large delivery fleet operators already use extensive data analytics to assign routes for minimizing energy consumption. The project team will further improve the energy efficiency of their series hybrid-electric vehicle by optimizing battery state of charge and engine operating strategy in coordination with intelligent eco-routing.

Using cloud connectivity, the vehicle will periodically download the most efficient powertrain calibrations based on external data, like traffic and weather, collected while the vehicle is en route.

The University of Minnesota NEXTCAR team includes an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University, including engineers to test the performance and efficiencies of the engine used in the vehicle and computer scientists who are examining the vast amounts of data.

“These engines generate a very large amount of data. There are hundreds of variables measured every second,” said Shashi Shakhar, a computer science and engineering professor and University of Minnesota NEXTCAR team collaborator. “If we can analyze the data, we can find very interesting and useful patterns, which can help us reduce fuel consumption and emission.”

The overall goal of the research is to reduce energy usage in the Workhorse-produced UPS vehicles by 20 percent.

Keeping the University at the forefront of engines research

In fall 2013, the University opened the newly renovated, 6,000-square-foot Murphy Engine Research Lab near the University’s East Bank campus. The lab is named in honor of former mechanical engineering professor Thomas E. Murphy who was the founding director of the former engines lab in the Mechanical Engineering Building.

The renovation of the new space was completed using state funding from the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) projects and University of Minnesota funds. More than $1 million in private funds from donations was used to buy equipment.

This lab features two transient double-ended dynamometer test cells equipped with state-of-the-art instruments and control systems. This enabled the lab to expand research to include alternative fuels, drive-cycle testing, and fundamental combustion research.

The lab is also training the next generation of engine researchers and employs several undergraduate and graduate student researchers.

Investment is paying off

“Our lab is a great example of what happens when public and private dollars come together,” Northrop said.

Northrop pointed out that the University of Minnesota has long been a leader in engines research, but this new space brings the University to a new level.

“A significant investment was made in our new facility to ensure that we stay at the forefront of technology needed to develop the next generation of clean and efficient engines,” he said. “Now that investment is paying off by bringing in federal funds and industry partnerships to address the global challenge of reducing energy usage.”

To learn more, visit the Murphy Engine Research Lab website.

If you or your company would like to support research within the College of Science and Engineering, visit the CSE giving web page.