As a senior research scientist and technical program manager for heavy vehicle systems at Argonne National Laboratories, Jules Routbort is the first to admit that setting a goal of 10 mpg in fuel economy for a Class 8 truck might be more wishful thinking than reality.

Yet Routbort, who is the head of the Dept. of Energy lab's MorElectric Truck (MET) program, believes that technological advances such as higher Class 8 fuel economy will never occur unless goals are placed just outside conventional thinking.

“Eight or nine years ago, the thermal efficiency of a heavy-truck diesel engine was around 54%. Now, with the introduction of EGR [exhaust gas recirculation] and Caterpillar's ACERT [advanced combustion emission reduction technology] systems, engine thermal efficiency is down to 40%,” he explains. “That all translates into reduced mpg for heavy trucks.”

According to Routbort, “The main goal of the MET program is energy security. Today we're importing 53% of our oil; and based on current trends, we'll be importing 68% by 2025. Of the current $540-billion U.S. trade deficit, 22% is for oil expenditures alone. That's a lot of capital going overseas to pay for oil,” he says.

Of the 22-million barrels of oil consumed in the U.S. every day, two-thirds of it, or 13-million barrels a day (b/d) is used for transportation, with trucks burning 8-million b/d in their fuel tanks. DOE trend lines indicate that by 2025, transportation demand for oil will top 18-million b/d, with trucking consuming 12-million b/d.

That's why Routbort is so enthusiastic about the potential benefits of the MET project. “From a global standpoint, the technologies developed in this project can help reduce our reliance on imported oil, contribute to emissions reduction, and from a trucking perspective, position the industry to remain competitive,” he says.

Launched in 2000, the MET program represents a joint effort between DOE and private industry to reduce parasitic loads on heavy truck engines. Caterpillar provided engine technology, mechanical design, electronics, controls and overall system integration; Kenworth supplied a T-2000 Class 8 truck; Emerson offered electric motor and power electronics knowledge; and Engineered Machined Products developed electrically-driven water and oil pumps According to Routbort, the key to the program is the use of electrical power to enable a variety of truck systems to operate independently of the engine. Specifically, the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, brake air compressor, and oil and water pumps on the MET vehicle all operate on electricity. The accessories are powered by a generator inside the flywheel housing, which also serves as the starter motor, along with an auxiliary power unit (APU) and shore power plug-in capability.

Preliminary results indicate a 2% decrease in over-the-road fuel consumption for the MET test vehicle and 6% during engine idling. This means a saving of more than $2,000 annually per truck in fuel and engine maintenance costs.

That 8% improvement in fuel efficiency would cut industrywide diesel fuel consumption by 600-million gallons a year, saving $1-billion in fuel costs and eliminating 7.6-million tons of carbon dioxide, 140,000 tons of oxides of nitrogen, and 2,400 tons of carbon monoxide emissions a year.

“Think about this for a minute,” says Routbort. “We're talking about saving fuel and money for the trucker, reducing our nation's dependence on foreign oil, reducing emissions [that are] harmful to the air, reducing the cost of shipping freight, and complying with various anti-idling regulations at the state and local level — all at once. Not bad for a public-private research project.”

And it's research that will very soon become part of the real world of trucking. Class 7 and 8 fleet tests of MET systems begin this summer, and Routbort expects commercial variations of MET technology to be available by October 2005.

In addition, this year the MET project will begin to apply what it has learned from the heavy-duty segment to Class 2-6 trucks. As Routbort says, “We're just getting started in terms of what we can do to help commercial trucks of all shapes and sizes improve fuel efficiency.”