Electric Vehicles in Rural Communities
Those who live in or near large cities enjoy ready access to public and private transportation, where bus, rail, taxi and ride share options are plentiful. But for smaller communities, getting around can be a real challenge. Well, we recently visited one Texas town that has found a smart, clean solution for shrinking this big problem.
Bastrop, Texas, is located about 30 miles southeast of Austin. It covers nine square miles and is home to around 9000 people. It’s a pleasant place to live or visit, on the edge of Texas hill country with the Colorado river passing nearby; a thriving main street downtown and a relaxed vibe all around.
Typical of small towns in the area, there are no city buses or subways here. Carts, the capital area rural transportation system, offers low-cost van rides for folks to get around within the city limits, or to connect with regional transit options.
And since December of 2019, Bastrop has collaborated with the lone star clean fuels alliance and e-cabs of North America to provide a cost-free and emissions-free micro-transit ride service using GEM low-speed battery electric vehicles. The US Department of Energy funded this two-year pilot project to explore how well these low-speed EV’s could meet a rural community’s first- and last-mile transit needs.
The GEMs carry 5 passengers and can legally travel on roads with speed limits up to 45 miles per hour, though the cabs themselves top out at 25. They can sustain 3 to 4 hours of continuous duty per charge.
E-cabs operates on evenings and weekends, and covers a limited area surrounding downtown Bastrop, but there are no pre-determined routes. It’s all on-demand and on the rider’s schedule, and these things stay busy! They also offer a para-transport option with a foldaway accessibility ramp.
The system allows riders to request electric cab service through a phone call or a mobile app. The e-cab driver is alerted immediately, and pickup time is typically fifteen minutes or less.
Bastrop mayor Connie Schroeder is a frequent rider, and she knows a thing or two about riding in style!
MAYOR CONNIE SCHROEDER: It doesn’t matter if you’re in a small town or a big town, you need to be able to get around. Everybody needs to go to the post office, go to a doctor, maybe get something to eat, and that last mile can be extremely hard. It can be hard if you don’t have a vehicle, it can be hard if you’re elderly.
JOHN DAVIS: Frequently taking the place of larger conventional vehicles, the system’s electric vehicles translate into lower per-trip fuel consumption and emissions. Bastrop’s e-cabs are re-charged using electricity from the Texas grid, which relies on one of the country’s highest proportions of renewable energy sources.
Nationwide, adoption of electric vehicles has lagged in rural areas when compared to urban markets. The hope is that the electric shuttles can increase comfort and familiarity with EV technology in the community, and could lead to greater interest in electric vehicle ownership, too.
CHRIS NIELSEN: This is a good idea because it’s incredibly inexpensive to operate, it’s efficient, the people like it. We have a lot of traction, and we’ve been adopted by the community here. And we’re a part of it now, and this has happened everywhere that we’ve deployed.
JOHN DAVIS: The e-cabs are bringing new mobility options to the citizens of Bastrop, and showing that even a small town can set a big example for clean transportation.
MAYOR CONNIE SCHROEDER: They take care of the environment, they’re convenient, they’re easy, and there isn’t anything better than waving to your friends when you’re in a free e-cab ride.
Heavy duty trucks transport about 70% of our goods and materials around the country and account for 10% of all miles driven on US highways. The bad news is, most big rigs travel about 6 miles per gallon of fuel, so the need to improve truck efficiency is more crucial than ever. Well, the US Department of Energy has come up with a way to find those answers.
Kicking off in 2010 and now entering its third iteration, SuperTruck is a Department of Energy-funded research program aimed at helping truck makers achieve ambitious gains in freight efficiency, or ton-miles per gallon, for the next generation of big rigs.
SuperTruck 2, which is now wrapping up, focused on diesel engines, which still, and will, power most trucks for the near future. Several teams were able to incorporate 48-volt mild hybrid systems to enable idle reduction, power the hotel loads, or driver comfort systems, and convert belt-driven accessories, like steering, to electric power, eliminating drag on the engine for more efficient operation. SuperTruck 3 will explore electric and fuel cell power trains over the next few years.
DEREK ROTZ: “As we move forward into research, we’re looking into zero emissions, and the benefits of working with the Department of Energy is not only getting a– a 50/50 cost share to allow us to share the resources on these high risk/high reward technologies, but it also opens us up to the possibility to work with the national lab systems, the university systems, and those folks that have been looking at those cutting edge– edge technologies for years.”
The result has been a super-charged R&D effort that is already paying huge dividends. One SuperTruck 2 team has achieved 16 miles per gallon, 10 more than the current on-road average, and all are on track to surpass the 100% freight efficiency goal, some reaching as much as 170% improvement.
DAREK VILLENEUVE: “We’ve looked at all aspects with an eye towards production. We don’t want to develop things off in a science box that had no means, we really want to look at things that did have a good chance for production.”
Looking at all of these futuristic designs, it’s obvious that lightweighting and aerodynamics play a big part. Technology like rearview cameras and extensive wind tunnel testing has found ways to make the big box less boxy, minimize body gaps, and improve airflow.
KEITH BRANDIS: “When you look at aero, it takes a number of factors that we have to stretch, if you will, and that was the whole purpose, was to see how far we could go with extreme aero, and you’ll see all the skirting along the side of the vehicle, but also to lower the vehicle and use low profile tires, to eliminate the amount of air that builds up around the front air dam.”
Both Peterbilt and Kenworth’s extreme aero designs build around a center seating position to allow a narrow nose. While Navistar’s sleek rig includes a curved trailer roof to maximize clean airflow across the full length. With aerodynamic gains now almost exceeding the realm of what’s possible, looking forward the R&D focus will shift back to the power train, and the target of zero emissions.
DEREK ROTZ: “So… So, decarbonizing commercial vehicles is no easy task. Uh, we’ve been at diesel for over a century now, we’ve kind of perfected it. Going into these zero emissions technologies is a whole new field, so–so it’s learning about new technologies, new technical fields such as electro-chemistry, um, things like that are new to this industry, and those are some of the barriers we need to be able to overcome.”
Here is where collaboration and innovation come into play. All of these manufacturers are up for the challenge and optimistic that zero-emission trucks will be viable not too far down the road.
MAARTEN MEIJER: “Solutions that we see as opportunities are the fuel cell electric vehicles, the hydrogen combustion engine vehicles, and the hybrid powertrains using the more traditional diesel engine concept, but switching to an e-fuel approach.”
So, what’s the bottom line of all this effort? Supertruck-developed technologies can save nearly 6 billion barrels of oil by 2050. To the average truck owner, that could ring up $35,000 a year in fuel savings! And that adds up to environmental and financial savings that benefit all of us in the long haul!