The Fuse

Electrification and Autonomy in the Spotlight at ARPA-E Summit

by Matt Piotrowski | March 14, 2018

At the 9th annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Summit this week, a host of promising technologies were showcased and discussed among speakers and panelists. Over the years, the gathering has provided a platform for new and emerging technologies in the energy space and, in particular, ventures that will increase fuel efficiency and reduce oil demand in the transportation sector. The Agency, which takes risks to “push the boundaries of energy innovation,” has dedicated funding over the years for projects to diversify the transportation fleet with better batteries for electric vehicles, supportive technologies for natural gas vehicles, and advanced biofuels.

Electrification and autonomy received a lot of attention at this year’s summit. An example ARPA-E’s work on autonomy was on display with its NEXTCAR project, a program launched to advance efficiency for connected and highly automated vehicles. Data and computer abilities from NEXTCAR are leveraged to utilize efficient routes and provide capacity to predict optimal vehicle and powertrain settings to lessen energy use by 20 percent. The Agency developed this program to study energy efficiency at a time when most of the debate surrounding autonomous vehicles has focused on safety.

Synergies between autonomy & electrification

On a panel entitled “The End of the Road for the Internal Combustion Engine?” SAFE’s Amitai Bin-Nun, Vice President of Autonomous Vehicles and Mobility Innovation, spoke of the synergies between autonomy and electrification and how the two can accelerate reductions in oil demand.

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Crucially, self-driving technology can hasten the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). “Absent significant disruption from AVs, it will be more than 20 years before EVs are majority of light duty vehicles,” Bin-Nun said.

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When vehicles are autonomous, connected and electric, the benefits could be large: less congestion, fewer crashes, smoother travel in cities, and reduced oil consumption.

In his presentation, entitled “ICE ICE Baby,” Bin-Nun pointed out that EVs are cheaper to operate than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, providing incentives for consumers and fleet operators to adopt them. When vehicles are autonomous, connected and electric, the benefits could be large: less congestion, fewer crashes, smoother travel in cities, and reduced oil consumption.

Despite the promise of electrification and autonomy, ICE vehicles are likely to remain relevant for decades to come, making it important that vehicle weight reduction, improvements in fuel, and increasing hybridization will reduce oil demand even before full-scale electrification occurs.

Electric aircrafts?

In another panel that centered on electrification and autonomy, speakers highlighted the potential of electric aviation. Sonja Glavaski, Program Director at ARPA-E, told the audience that they might think she’s “crazy” to have an optimistic outlook on electrification of airplanes, but development of commercial electric aircrafts is already occurring, albeit on a small scale. Lithium-ion batteries can now power small aircrafts with two seats that have flight endurance of three hours, and research is looking into electrifying larger planes that can fit 76 passengers and could be utilized for regional flights.

Lithium-ion batteries can now power small aircrafts with two seats that have flight endurance of three hours.

She acknowledged the numerous challenges for electric planes. Electrification of aviation has so far been limited by the energy density of batteries. Aircrafts will need more efficient propulsion and improved battery storage. Just as important, entire planes will have to be redesigned to reduce weight.

Even though it will be decades before electric aircraft are commercially viable on a large scale, changes could be profound. If engineers can improve the “lift-to-drag” ratio (the amount of lift produced by a wing or vehicle, divided by the aerodynamic drag it creates when moving through the air) by 20 percent for an electric flight of 500 miles, it could reduce energy consumption by a massive 35 percent. Some aviation companies expect to have hybrid electric planes for delivery early next decade, while also increasing their investments in autonomous capabilities.

Electrification in the aviation sector, should it succeed, would eventually have large implications for oil demand growth. Jet fuel demand is expected to grow sharply in coming decades with aviation travel forecast to double and limited fuel substitutes in this area.

Success of ARPA-E

ARPA-E has received a number of criticisms over the years because some funding has been injected into projects that ultimately failed. Chris Fall, principal deputy director of APRA-E, addressed this issue head-on in his speech at the summit, saying he wants to clearly define the Agency’s mission, show that it is not just “another grants program,” and demonstrate how it is different than other federal research projects.

“Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, it’s hard to find a more effective thing government has done than ARPA-E.”

Endeavors supported by ARPA-E are expected to take risks in order to accelerate innovation and assist high-risk, high-reward emerging technologies in energy. With the mission of focusing on early-stage technologies, ARPA-E sees some projects, whether in academia, national labs, start-ups, or private industry, not develop commercially. But the Agency has demonstrated its importance by providing pivotal grants to projects that would not be able to get funding elsewhere. Since its inception in 2009, ARPA-E, which is modeled after the Department of Defense’s DARPA program, has enticed some $2.6 billion in private-sector follow-up funding, and more than 70 companies have been formed as a result of the agency’s projects. Also reflecting the agency’s importance is the list of speakers at the conference over the years, which include Tesla’s Elon Musk, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and FedEx Chairman and CEO Frederick W. Smith. “Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, it’s hard to find a more effective thing government has done than ARPA-E,” Smith told the audience in 2012.

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