Touring CAR's Battery Testing Facility with Senior Associate Director David Cooke. - Photo: Kelly Reagan

Touring CAR's Battery Testing Facility with Senior Associate Director David Cooke. 

Photo: Kelly Reagan

During a quarterly Municipal Equipment Maintenance Association (MEMA) Ohio meeting hosted by the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research (CAR) members had a closer look at alternative fuels, from electrification to hydrogen. 

The CAR team supports a wide variety of research programs in battery electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hybrid propulsion systems, and other alternative “low and zero emissions” fuels. CAR is also the home to the USDOT Federal Transit Administration Low and No Emissions Directed Research program, a $27.5 million research and development and testing program to help the transition to zero emissions transit vehicle fleets.  

The visit allowed fleet professionals to ask questions such as ‘Is compressed natural gas cleaner than diesel?’ Students could then check this through a dynamometer and look at the emission output allowing them to compare the two. This type of research is targeted toward sustainability and moving fleet forward in a new way that may not have been done before. 

Ohio State University's Battery Lab. - Photo: Kelly Reagan

Ohio State University's Battery Lab.

Photo: Kelly Reagan

Making the Vehicle of the Future

Kelly Reagan, fleet administrator for the city of Columbus, Ohio, Division of Fleet Management, said part of the visit was to see what technology is being tested at CAR that may be coming down the pipeline for OEMs and, in turn, fleets. And what seems to be the current project at hand? 

“Everybody's got electric vehicles on the brain…also autonomous technology. [CAR] works with a number of different agencies in developing new technologies,” Reagan said noting that part of the research has stemmed from asking questions on how to get more energy out of a smaller battery and spend less time charging it. 

Vehicle hybridization and electrification have been at the forefront of research at CAR for more than 20 years, according to David Cooke, senior associate director, Center for Automotive Research.  CAR is also the home to the USDOT Federal Transit Administration Low and No Emissions Directed Research program where some of the top priorities are vehicle range, reliability, safety, and deployment optimization.

On top of education, CAR is working to support the development of mobility systems of the future as well as economic development. 

“The entire reason we exist is to educate students in the context of industry challenges while preparing them for careers and innovating for the industry along the way,” Cooke stated. “Our programs are very hands-on and nearly all students are working in partnership with the industry to develop and deploy real-world solutions."

An electric race motorcycle is part of CAR's research into electric transportation. - Photo: Kelly Reagan

An electric race motorcycle is part of CAR's research into electric transportation. 

Photo: Kelly Reagan

Innovation for the Next Fleet Generation

Reagan said that part of what makes this research so important is that it opens up more career opportunities for students who haven’t yet entered the workforce but are interested in fleet. Noting that many fleet managers like himself are looking at retirement in the near future it’s important to bring in the next generation of fleet professionals, from engineers to technicians, to fleet managers and more. Cooke adds to this by explaining that part of CAR’s mission is to educate the next generation of mobility engineering leaders. 

The biggest problem Cooke is seeing is the industry needs more engineers, planners, operators, and technicians educated in electrified vehicles but that there aren’t enough programs. He adds that a large portion of CAR’s focus is scaling these opportunities to a wider audience while maintaining quality within the educational programs. 

“But we have to bring them in from the correct perspective,” Reagan said. “And that's to keep an open mind to any and all technologies.”

Vehicles are tested in with a dynamometer, which provides accurate road-load and grade simulation for testing. - Photo: Kelly Reagan

Vehicles are tested in with a dynamometer, which provides accurate road-load and grade simulation for testing. 

Photo: Kelly Reagan

For Cooke, there is no doubt that future fleets will incorporate more hybrid and fully electrified vehicle solutions. He points to the options currently available, including competing alternative fuel, battery, and hydrogen powertrains, and explains that there are different strategies for refueling, charging, and route optimization.  

“Getting to the best solution for the fleet is more complicated than just picking the best vehicle on the market, more work than ever is needed to match a vehicle to an application and to consider new bounds in operational strategy to achieve maximum system efficiency,” Cooke pointed out. “It can be a complicated world to navigate, but once a new vocabulary is learned, fleets will find there are a lot of very exciting solutions and some really great products on the market that can help with the push toward zero emissions while maintaining the operational bounds needed to accomplish the job.”

He emphasizes that electric vehicles offer unique features not present in traditional combustion vehicles, such as torque power and the ability to offload power.

Reagan points to embracing technological changes as part of this transition, something he believes can be fostered through organizations such as CAR and other university programs. 

“These younger people are going to be standing on our shoulders and looking out and they're going to be looking out asking, “What's next? How many EVs can I buy? Where am I going to put them? Do I need to turn my compressed natural gas into hydrogen?” 

Vehicle hybridization and electrification have been at the forefront of research at CAR for more than 20 years. - Photo: Kelly Reagan

Vehicle hybridization and electrification have been at the forefront of research at CAR for more than 20 years. 

Photo: Kelly Reagan

This is also why MEMA exists, according to Reagan: to share knowledge and shorten the learning curve, especially for newer fleet managers.

“The entire industry has a new vocabulary to learn. Fleet planners, operators, drivers, and technicians all have new skills to learn to be safe, efficient, and to get the best results,” Cooke noted. “There is a lot of momentum in developing new workforce training but it’s a big job and it's needed quickly, with a long way to go.”

Cooke explains that there is not one answer to the perfect vehicle and that the future will involve deploying various vehicles to meet the mission best. According to Cooke, spending time to build a roadmap for the transition to zero emissions is important. He recommends that even if that transition is slow or not starting immediately starting to educate yourself about the new technologies and understanding how they will impact your fleet is vital.  

“There are a lot of good resources, some with quite a bit of history and a lot more newly emerging. Look for support from people other than those trying to sell you a product,” Cooke stated. “There are a lot of non-profit, academic, and clean fuels organizations with a lot to offer.”

Planning for the Fleet of the Future

While manufacturers aren't out of the business of internal combustion engines (ICE), Reagan believes there will come a day when ICE is a thing of the past and, when this happens, fleets should already have a plan in place. 

“You better know what your applications are for your assets. You better know what your total cost of ownership is,” Reagan said. “You better know all of these pieces, so that you can plan accordingly to take out ICE vehicles and put in electric vehicles.”

The city of Columbus has been focused on compressed natural gas with the city starting by building its first station through a grant 10 years ago. Currently, there is more than $22 million invested in four stations across the city, which owns and operates the stations and is pumping almost 1.5 million GGE’s of compressed natural gas annually. 

They’ve also been working with Ohio State to better understand and implement sustainability through programs, such as building CNG infrastructure across the city. 

“We’re trying to focus on a learning experience for fleet managers that will help us break out of our molds and grow; Ohio State helps us to do that,” Reagan said.  

Transitioning Vehicles to Meet a Changing Landscape

How do vehicle manufacturers fit into this changing landscape? They are certainly a key part to this evolution as manufacturers are the ones bringing these products to market. 

“Vehicle OEMs are in a tough spot right now,” Cooke stated. “They are under a lot of pressure to invest unprecedented amounts of [research and development] into new electrified products that, at the moment, are still a relatively low sales volume.”

Cooke adds that OEMs have to fully invest in their current profitable products and invest in the future like never before. There is also a need to educate customers at the time of planning and purchasing to provide operational and maintenance training. 

“It’s a lot to do quickly, all while trying to bring the customer a product they want and will buy,” Cooke noted. “It’s a very complicated time in the industry, but in this case complicated means exciting and I can’t wait to see the products we have been working on in the R&D space for the last 20 years really start to gain significant market penetration.”

Still, the current landscape has made it difficult to plan ahead for many fleets. 

Reagan likens buying vehicles today to playing Whac-A-Mole, where windows open and then close in a short period of time. As an example, he points to last year when PPV order banks opened and closed within 24 hours. 

“What government agency can buy a pursuit vehicle within 24 hours? Very few,” Reagan said. 

Fleets have also had to find ways around orders being canceled. For the city of Columbus, the fleet had to secure additional funding to get those vehicles back on their way. But Reagan says the supply lines are still not cleaned up and with issues like a chip shortage, fleets will have to better understand how to make things work for their own operations. 

So while there is much to look forward to in terms of where vehicles are headed, many fleets are wondering about the now. As Reagan indicates: 

“You do try to think one step ahead of  the OEMs by legislating funding,  when the window opens for orders you can buy and you're not the last one at the table holding your hat in your hand, you're the first one.”

About the author
Nichole Osinski

Nichole Osinski

Executive Editor

Nichole Osinski is the executive editor of Government Fleet magazine. She oversees editorial content for the magazine and the website, selects educational programming for GFX, and manages the brand's awards programs.

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