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John Petersen is the executive vice president and chief financial officer of ePower Engine Systems, Inc., a Kentucky-based enterprise that has developed, built and demonstrated an engine-dominant diesel-electric hybrid drivetrain for long-haul heavy trucks that promises fuel savings of 30 to 40... More
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Fefer Petersen & Co.
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  • EPower's Series Hybrid Electric Drive – Unmatched Fuel Economy For Heavy Trucks 25 comments
    Dec 7, 2012 2:27 AM

    eOver the last couple weeks there's been a lot of message board chatter about ePower Engine Systems, a transportation technology company that has selected the PbC® battery from Axion Power International (OTCQB:AXPW) for its series hybrid electric drivetrain for over-the-road freight haulers who drive heavy Class 8 tractors. Since I introduced ePower to Axion and have tracked their progress for a couple years, I called ePower's CEO Andy Claypole to ask his permission to share what I've learned about ePower's hybrid electric drivetrain.

    (click to enlarge)

    After a series of phone calls and e-mails, Andy graciously sent me a technical presentation on ePower's series hybrid drive and gave me permission to share the presentation with readers and discuss ePower and its technology in greater detail. Click here to download a copy of ePower's presentation.

    ePower Engine Systems LLC is a closely-held advanced transportation technology developer that's using inexpensive off-the-shelf components to bring series electric drive, the mainstay of the nation's rail transportation system, to highway transportation. Their goal is to narrow the fuel efficiency gap between 480 ton miles per gallon for railroads and 110 ton miles per gallon for heavy trucks.

    In a truck with series electric drive, there is no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. Instead, the engine powers a generator and electricity from the generator powers an electric drive motor. This configuration maximizes fuel efficiency by running the engine at its optimal RPM and eliminates the need for complex heavy truck transmissions while delivering the instantaneous peak torque of an electric motor.

    In furtherance of their goal to maximize fuel efficiency, ePower takes series electric drive a step further by sizing the generator for steady vehicle state operations at highway speed and using an array of 52 PbC batteries to provide additional power for acceleration and hill climbing, and increased energy savings from regenerative braking. The ePower drivetrain is a true series hybrid electric drive and a first for the trucking industry. The design is suboptimal for mountainous routes with substantial elevation changes, but it's extremely efficient in flatter terrain.

    (click to enlarge)

    While a typical Class 8 tractor operating in the US with an 80,000 pound gross vehicle weight achieves fuel economy in the 5.2 mpg range, the same truck with an ePower system will deliver fuel economy of 10 to 14 mpg, values that crush the DOE's 2018 SuperTruck target of 6.8 mpg for conventional heavy trucks. It works out to an annual fuel savings of roughly 11,500 gallons per vehicle.

    During the startup phase, ePower has focused on the retrofit market because around 37% of the 2.7 million trucks in the US-fleet are more than five but less than twelve years old. These trucks have outlived their original drivetrain warranties and are often less efficient than newer trucks, but they have substantial remaining useful life in their chassis, bodies and other components.

    The cost of converting a tractor with a conventional diesel drivetrain to a series hybrid electric drivetrain is approximately $70,000 (batteries included) and ePower believes its retrofits will pay for themselves through fuel savings alone in 18 to 24 months.

    Currently, ePower is doing all required retrofit work in its own facility. Once its system is fully developed and proven, ePower intends to provide the necessary conversion components in kit form for sale to certified installers including fleet operators and other service entities. It also hopes to license its technologies and systems upstream into the OEM market.

    ePower's original design used absorbed glass mat, or AGM, batteries to provide acceleration and hill climbing boost. Unfortunately, the AGM batteries were poorly suited to long-string use and ePower was not satisfied with the frequency of battery failures. The AGM batteries also tended to degrade rapidly, which impaired acceleration and hill climbing boost while diminishing the efficiency of regenerative braking systems. ePower believes the long-string behavior and high dynamic charge acceptance of Axion's PbC battery will overcome both of these challenges.

    The PbC batteries were delivered to ePower in mid-November and installed in swappable battery boxes that will give ePower the ability to switch back and forth between the old AGM batteries and the new PbC batteries in a couple of hours. During the first week in December, ePower plans to conduct a series of benchmarking tests to compare the on-road performance of the two battery systems in the same vehicle. It will then devote the rest of December to a road show for potential customers. In early January, the first PbC powered truck will be delivered to ePower's customer and a second AGM powered truck will be brought back into the shop for a PbC upgrade.

    I believe the ePower system is intriguing for several reasons. Firstly, it's a frontal assault on fuel costs, the biggest expense burden in the trucking industry. Secondly, ePower's initial marketing efforts are directed at medium to large fleet operators who are more inclined to assume the risk of testing an idea in real world conditions instead of devoting years to laboratory work. Thirdly, the ePower system is an extremely efficient use of batteries. Finally, it doesn't take much market penetration in a million-unit fleet to represent a substantial revenue base for ePower and Axion.

    If results from ePower's prototype demonstrations are favorable, there is a significant likelihood that several large freight operators will purchase multiple retrofits for similar testing programs to determine where series hybrid electric drivetrain would fit into their operations. ePower's series hybrid electric drive system is not a silver bullet solution for all truckers and all routes, but the economics can be very compelling for firms with established routes and schedules where a series hybrid electric drivetrain can do the required work at a lower cost.

    Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (OTCQB:AXPW) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.

    Disclosure: I am long OTCQB:AXPW.

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Comments (25)
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  • Very nice article John, thank you
    7 Dec 2012, 08:14 AM Reply Like
  • Exciting news, has the conversion testing (first week Dec) shown any results, I know it's early, just asking?
    7 Dec 2012, 12:01 PM Reply Like
  • Does't sound like a game changer to take AXPW into the black but it does look like it could increase revenue and slow burn rate next year.
    7 Dec 2012, 05:06 PM Reply Like
  • I take that back, if just 10% of the 999,000 trucks that are less then 12 years old but out of warranty convert, and AXPW makes $10 per battery they are in the black with profit from sale to ePower of $51,948,000... providing they could make over 5M batteries at this point. Break even would be around 2% of target market trucks with an approximate $8 profit per battery.
    11 Dec 2012, 12:05 PM Reply Like
  • Mr John:
    Excellent article and thanks for ePower with AXION approach.
    7 Dec 2012, 06:06 PM Reply Like
  • Thanks for the info John! Out of curiosity, how many other "ePower's" are their working on meeting new DOE heavy truck guidelines?
    9 Dec 2012, 02:23 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » The DOE's SuperTruck project has several first tier partners that are identified in the ePower presentation. To the best of my knowledge those parties are all stuck in the 5.x to 6.x mpg range.
    9 Dec 2012, 02:43 PM Reply Like
  • is the weight & space required for 52 batteries ecomically available
    10 Dec 2012, 05:05 PM Reply Like
  • >ronm ... Short answer ... Yes. Check out the images attached to the patent application.

    10 Dec 2012, 06:10 PM Reply Like
  • Ronm
    JP has stated they are going to a double high stack. Where is has 28 they could have two layers and fit 56.
    10 Dec 2012, 07:02 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » If you look at the picture in the article, you'll see a step up directly under the door and two metal boxes immediately behind the step. Those are the battery boxes. Weight and space are big constraints in automotive but far less important in trucking.
    11 Dec 2012, 12:12 AM Reply Like
  • Ronm,
    The space is there. Weight is a factor depending on the types of loads, however the trade off of having much smaller fuel tanks, say 100 gallons instead of 200 gallons (at apprx 5 lbs to a gallon) a smaller lighter engine with no transmission should factor out to the tractor weight being just a little heavier than a standard diesel tractor (including the batteries). I would have to see the specs for dry weight and fuel tank sizes to be more specific. This is a rough sketch from a driver that has driven Petes, Volvos, Internationals and Freightshakers. BTW, the smoothest ride was the Volvo, but spent a lot of time sliding the 5th wheel as it was also the heaviest tractor I ever drove.


    Love the batteries included statement.
    11 Dec 2012, 04:52 AM Reply Like
  • RE: Smaller lighter engine.
    Is that part of the $70K upgrade, or does that come later with brand new production Trucks?
    Seems like a bargin if it does.
    11 Dec 2012, 11:54 AM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » The ePower package includes a smaller turbocharged engine, the generator, the drive motor, the batteries, all required control electronics and retrofit labor for about $70K.


    When it gets to the OEM level, using a smaller engine instead of a big one, eliminating the transmission from the get go and doing an OEM build instead of a retrofit will probably involve a significantly lower premium.
    11 Dec 2012, 12:18 PM Reply Like
  • Arge
    To add a bit to JP's answer.
    A regular redo of the engine etc (which is needed after 5 years or so) is about $50K. The ePower replacement is about $20K extra. In theory it will save about $11K in fuel yearly. Payback is expected to be a bit under 2 years.
    11 Dec 2012, 01:04 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » To clarify, the ePower fuel savings are expected to be 11,000 gallons or about $35,000 per year. The two-year payback is based on the entire retrofit cost, not just the ePower premium over a conventional overhaul.
    11 Dec 2012, 01:09 PM Reply Like
  • Oh! thanks for the correction John
    11 Dec 2012, 01:38 PM Reply Like
  • That is a bargain, if $50k has to be spent anyway!
    Almost wish I was a truck driver so I could take advantage...start making about $2.5K extra every month after 7-8 months.
    Some entrepreneur should come up with a creative financing option.
    11 Dec 2012, 01:56 PM Reply Like
  • I can see why they were using a hydrogen generator when they were using AGM batteries, with PbC batteries I imagine that won't be optimal since the efficiency of that process (hydrogen) is quite low and the PbC run at a greater depth of discharge would give better results and save a lot of complexity. I guess they will have to establish the credentials of Axion's batteries before they can optimize for them. It certainly looks like a great use of PbC technology, I can see it extending into all sorts of refinements and other applications. Thanks to JP and DRICH (for the patent ref.)
    11 Dec 2012, 05:59 PM Reply Like
  • "While a typical Class 8 tractor operating in the US with an 80,000 pound gross vehicle weight achieves fuel economy in the 5.2 mpg range, the same truck with an ePower system will deliver fuel economy of 10 to 14 mpg, values that crush the DOE's 2018 SuperTruck target of 6.8 mpg for conventional heavy trucks. It works out to an annual fuel savings of roughly 11,500 gallons per vehicle."


    Intuition tells me that the anticipated mpg gains are HIGHLY optimistic. On level ground I would expect a conventional engine/transmission to be more efficient than a series hybrid, which runs a diesel engine AND has conversion losses from generator to battery to traction (DC) motors. Which means all savings would have to come from regenerative braking, which doesn't happen too much on the interstate, but could be very significant in stop and go situations. (modest grades would probably only deplete the batteries and give back little on the downslope).


    Trains are more efficient than trucks for several reasons: Extremely low rolling resistance (steel wheels on steel rails); tiny frontal area relative to payload mass; tiny horsepower requirements per ton of cargo; virtually NO stop-and-go situations.


    My two cents.


    18 Dec 2012, 09:58 AM Reply Like
  • Wow John. Thank you for the write-up and thank you for introducing ePower to Axion. I particularly resonate with your comment about real operators with real fuel costs being willing to try a retrofit solution long before an OEM has done 3 years of testing and validation. Cost savings like this are mind boggling!
    28 Dec 2012, 10:56 PM Reply Like
  • To John Peterson
    Fr a conservative


    I wish I had read this earlier.


    Could you provide some figures for the kWh capacity of the battery pack(s) and the increase in efficiency of the engine running at the optimal RPM. I imagine that optimizing the engine's RPM increases efficiency from 20-25% to 30-35%.
    7 Mar 2013, 10:07 AM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » As an engine dominant series hybrid drive there are no historic values for the engine running at anything other than an optimal 1,800 RPM.


    The battery array is 56 PbCs that are rated at 70 Ah and have a one hour energy capacity of 500 watt hours each.


    A more recent Instablog on the ePower tractor is here:

    7 Mar 2013, 11:52 AM Reply Like
  • To John Peterson


    Thanks for your response. Sorry my question regarding 'efficiency' was vague. What I should have asked is this: "Has anyone measured or estimated the efficiency of the optimally-run engine?"


    The vagueness of my original question was created when I offered my guess that a normal truck engine operates with about 20%-25% efficiency.


    I was thinking about PaulTD's comment on Dec 18:
    "a series hybrid ... has conversion losses from generator to battery to traction (DC) motors"


    PaulTD seems to ignore the increased efficiency of the optimized-RPM, and so I was just trying to pin it down with an estimate.


    Losses of energy (to heat) in the transmission and differential are probably greater than the heat produced in the batteries, generator and wires, which is what PaulTD calls "conversion losses"
    8 Mar 2013, 12:26 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » I wouldn't begin to know how to answer that question It sounds like you're primarily interested in a complex engineering proof where ePower is primarily concerned with the end result.


    Will tractor with a series hybrid electric drive offer the requisite acceleration and cruising attributes while generating significant fuel savings?


    I'm sorry that I can't be more informative, but the question is out of my depth.
    8 Mar 2013, 12:35 PM Reply Like
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