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opinions Rolf Lockwood

Got Enough Light?

Posted: January 12, 2017 by Rolf Lockwood

I’ve long held that North American headlight standards are inherently dangerous because they don’t allow brightness levels to match the speeds we travel. It’s just too easy to over-drive your lights, meaning you don’t see obstructions like stalled cars or animals or — may all the gods forbid — pedestrians in the way until you’re past the point of being able to stop in time. Even back in the 1950s when cars and certainly trucks were much slower, this held true. In fact it was worse.

I have a 6-volt 1959 Volvo, for example, that’s decidedly dangerous on a dark country road at night. Make that a dark and rainy night and the poor old Swede’s lights and wipers compete for the meager supply of electricity on tap but can’t deliver enough of either one. I’ve been caught in such circumstances a couple of times and I can tell you it ain’t no fun. With all the mechnicals done, the next step in the car’s renovation is a conversion to 12 volts. Damn the originality thing, I just want to see. Until then, it’s a day-time car.

Assuming a 12-volt base, it used to be easy to provide yourself with proper lighting. Upgrade the headlamps to H4 halogen bulbs or better and add a couple of strong driving lamps and you were good to go, if sometimes illegally in the U.S. where strong lights have never found regulatory favor. For reasons that baffle me.

And please, oh please, forget the fog-lamp idea. They’re essentially useless in my experience, throwing very little light on the road in foggy conditions and nothing at all on a clear night. I laugh when I see cars and trucks driving along in fine weather with their fog lamps on. What on earth is the point?

But I digress.

Until a decade or two ago, my own first step upon getting a new car was to make those lighting upgrades, but modern cars — and most trucks are no different — make that very difficult and/or expensive. There’s nowhere to find a solid mount for driving lamps when ‘bumpers’ are plastic, to start with. Headlamp bulb changes are easier but seem not to be cheap. I find this very frustrating as I haven’t had a vehicle in quite a few years with what I’d call adequate lighting. Long-range driving lamps are essential for me.

I have yet to explore the LED headlamp option so can’t comment, but I’d be grateful to hear from any of you have tried it.

ARE TWO LAMPS BETTER THAN ONE? Philips thinks so. It’s a little self-serving, or maybe a lot, but the point of the new Philips Lighting Safety Campaign is also a public service. It’s aimed at encouraging service technicians and vehicle owners to change headlight bulbs in pairs, whenever they need to replace a bulb due to damage, failure, or when one of the bulbs starts to dim.

Headlight bulbs tend to deteriorate and lose effectiveness after 2 to 3 years of use, the company says. Typically, people only replace the bulb that’s burned out or failing. Philips maintains that this is ill-advised because replacing just one failed bulb can result in an unbalanced or unpredictable headlight beam and potentially present a safety risk.

From the driver’s perspective, the road ahead won’t be properly lit and the driver won’t get the full benefit of the vehicle’s headlights as originally designed. From an oncoming driver’s perspective, an uneven headlamp beam can create an equally risky safety issue.

It’s a good point. How often have you had to guess what’s actually coming at you when you see uneven beams ahead?

“The filament in a headlight ages with use, time, and exposure to the elements,” the company explains. “As a result it becomes fragile and starts to deteriorate, and this causes the light output to diminish. At the end of a typical service life headlight bulbs will likely be projecting a much shorter and less powerful beam light than when they were new.”

Statistics show that the average driver’s visual acuity is impaired by up to 70% after dark, notes Philips. Not surprisingly then, the U.S. National Safety Council says traffic death rates are three times greater at night than during the day. So lighting matters, and we probably don’t give it enough attention.

HOW ABOUT A POWERED TRAILER? I’ve wanted to write about a very cool electric-drive trailer tandem set for a while now, but I’m going to borrow heavily here from articles already penned by my friend and colleague Tom Berg in HDT magazine. Why re-invent the wheel?

Called the Intelligent Electric Axle, it comes from the work of some enterprising engineers at Hyliion Inc., a small company in Pittsburgh, Pa. Not yet ready for market, the device is undergoing road testing and should be available in mid-2017. And it promises to drop fuel use by 20% or so, even 30% in some cases.

The Hyliion powered tandem, which is a complete tandem set with axles and a suspension, would replace a trailer’s existing tandem. The suspension can be mechanical or air-spring, and a sliding tandem is the first type planned. A suspension supplier is being discussed.

The rearmost axle includes a motor-generator that runs through a standard differential. It captures kinetic energy as the truck coasts or brakes, converts it to electricity that’s stored in lithium-ion batteries, and then sends the energy back to the axle to help launch the truck or push it up a hill. Electronic controls — the intelligence in the system — run the process. 

The system is independent of the tractor (and thus will work with any type, new or old), and the driver does nothing to make it operate except making sure it’s switched on, says Thomas Healy, Hyliion’s founder and CEO. 

The powered axle replaces a ‘passive’ axle on a standard trailer tandem, and promises big fuel savings – 10 to 20% from hybrid-powered operation alone. Healy says another 10% or more in fuel can be saved if the batteries are used as an auxiliary power unit to run heating, cooling, and other accessories in a tractor sleeper during rest breaks. They might also run the reefer unit, liftgate, or other equipment on a trailer. 

Healy has observed big rigs and wondered why their mass couldn’t be captured for re-use, like the hybrid electric car he now drives. Hyliion, the company’s name, is a contraction of ‘hybrid lithium ion’, which is the type of battery that’s part of the system, says Robert Culbertson, the company’s marketing director. The firm started about a couple of years ago to perfect the idea.

“We’ve been trying it out with different battery combinations and different motor combinations,” Culbertson says. “A lot of our supplies are going down in price, so it’s becoming cost-effective as well as environmentally beneficial.” The fuel saving is estimated at 21% for the electric-drive tandem alone. Trailer aerodynamics would save more. 

The system would more than meet trailer targets in the Phase 2 greenhouse-gas and fuel economy regulations, Healy says. 

Replacing a trailer’s existing tandem is not a big job. Three people at Hyliion have changed out a tandem in less than 30 minutes, but they say an hour is more likely. Healy envisions trailer builders eventually offering the electric-drive tandem on new trailers.

HOW DOES IT WORK? A truck drive axle with a differential, now sourced from Dana, substitutes for one of the standard trailer axles. A 300-hp Remy motor-generator transmits energy to a battery pack that nestles between the rails of the slider box. When power is needed, electricity is sent to the motor, and it propels the trailer through the axle diff and shafts to the wheels. 

The prototype uses a belt and pulleys to transfer power between the differential and the motor-generator that’s mounted above. Production models will mount the motor within the differential so the motor is gear-driven.   

“We’ve been working with Dana on determining differential gear ratios,” says Healy, a mechanical engineer. “We think there’d be one set for an operator who does pickup and delivery and another for highway use.” 

Electronic controls use an algorithm to process data from wheel sensors and GPS monitoring, then determine what road speed should be maintained. Controls know when there’s wheel slip and alter the energy capture and power that’s applied. It works with the tandem’s anti-lock braking system to become electronic stability control, enhancing safety. Hyliion is working with Bendix on the ABS-related apparatus. 

The hybrid-electric tandem weighs 400 to 500 lb more than a standard tandem, but some of that would be offset by changing from dual wheels to wide-base singles.

ENERGY CAPTURED IN THE BATTERY PACK can be tapped to run air conditioning and heating in a sleeper cab, Healy says. A reefer unit might also be powered from the batteries. For sleeper HVAC, voltage would be stepped down from 400 to 110 by an inverter that’s part of the electronic controls. Depending on ambient temperatures, there would be 20 to 30 hours’ worth of power available.

The APU function would take total fuel savings to about 31%.

Projected price for a complete tandem is US$29,500, but the projected fuel and dollar savings would supply a payback in as little as six months, according to the company. A lease-purchase plan would cost US$500 per month for five years, and monthly fuel savings would more than cover that. 

“We’ve got this 80,000-pound vehicle moving around, so why can’t we get some energy out of it?” Culbertson says in recalling the idea that set development in motion. “The parts are pretty well tested, the motors, and it all works.”

ELECTRIC TRUCK SALES COULD reach 332,000 units worldwide by 2026, up from about 31,000 vehicles in 2016, according to a new report from Navigant Research. It forecasts sales of medium- and heavy-duty trucks for each major world region, segmented by electrified powertrain type, including hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric, and hydrogen fuel cell, through 2026.

As local and national governments impose stricter emissions targets for commercial vehicles, they’re also looking for ways to incentivize fleets to invest in fuel-efficient technologies as well as cleaner-burning fuels, according to Navigant. 

Though conventional diesel-powered vehicles are becoming cleaner and more efficient, the added initial and operating costs associated with these changes are helping to reduce the incremental cost of moving to electric-assisted and all-electric powertrains. 

“New and established suppliers are starting to offer alternative powertrains as well as complete electric vehicles for niche applications,” said David Alexander, senior research analyst for Navigant Research. “Limited daily range and a drive cycle featuring a lot of stopping and starting are applications that benefit most from electric drive capabilities, and delivery and refuse collection vehicles are expected to be the primary targets in the short term.” 

Technology advances and production experience in the bus market can be transferred readily to trucks, and the growing demand for electric cars has stimulated investment in battery manufacture that’s resulted in falling battery costs, according to the report. However, even with these positive factors, electric drive trucks are still expected to remain a niche market, at around 5% of sales in 2026. 

An Executive Summary of the report, Electric Drive Trucks, is available for free download on the Navigant Research website. 

THIS NEWSLETTER IS PUBLISHED every two weeks. For the most part it’s a heads-up notice about what’s going on with trucking technology. I also write here about interesting products that may not have had the ‘air play’ they deserved within the last few months, and maybe about issues that warrant attention in my occasionally humble opinion.

I should remind you that, with the odd exception, I don’t endorse any of the products I write about in this e-newsletter, nor do I have the resources to test them except on rare occasions. What you’re getting is reasonably well educated opinion based on more than 37 years in trucking.

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