Many carmakers are pledging to go all-electric in the near future, so other forms of hard working machinery are starting to follow suit…including down on the farm where Green Acres is truly the place to be.
Although farm tractors and the jobs they do have become more sophisticated and high-tech over the years, the heavy chassis and engines under the hood haven't always kept pace with that progress and most still rely primarily on diesel fuel.
Hummingbird EV is one company looking to upset that status quo apple cart. They’ve teamed up with the San Joaquin Valley Clean Cities Coalition, Project Clean Air, and others to place four prototype zero-emission electric tractors in service at one of the country’s largest fruit growers.
These EV tractors are fitted with 120 peak kilowatt electric motors tied to Hummingbird controllers and software. With 25 kilowatt-hour battery packs and 65 horsepower, performance is equivalent to a gas or diesel tractor of the same size.
Moonlight companies, in Reedley, California, is an ideal test bed. They operate year-round, growing all varieties of citrus and stone fruits...from peaches, plums, and pomegranates.. to grapes, lemons, oranges and -- during our visit, lots and lots of mandarins -- and shipping them fresh to markets all over the globe.
This third-generation farm is committed to using environmentally-sound practices and investing in the latest technology. They even have a 2-megawatt on-site solar farm which powers much of their packing and cold-storage operations. So trying out these EV tractors for the past year was an easy call.
TY TAVLAN: We use approximately 80 small diesel-powered tractors during the harvest season to pull our fruit through the field. For this particular function, since it pulls fruit, and then it stops..then it pulls fruit again and then it stops, we can get approximately two days worth of work out of the tractor.
What we really like about it is, it’s basically maintenance-free, it starts every time, and it works just fine.
JOHN DAVIS: The battery-electric tractors in this test are paired with an all-electric class 6 vehicle-to-vehicle charging truck, also designed by Hummingbird. It can provide up to 40 kilowatts of level 2 AC charging, enough to juice up two tractors simultaneously, eliminating time-consuming round-trips back to the charging station; a big advantage, especially during harvest. The truck itself has an 88 kilowatt-hour battery pack and 90 miles of range.
Hummingbird’s expertise is designing and scaling electric powertrains for medium duty applications like mining, utilities and food delivery. And they are challenging the notion that one size fits all down on the farm.
RAKESH KONERU: Every tractor has a certain demand in terms of the battery pack size and things like that..how long they use, how long they drive, so on and so forth, so where we’re unique is we’re trying to adapt where the commonality of parts come into play. So, when you try to scale it up, it’s easy to mix and match a production line with different scale of vehicles with the same system.
JOHN DAVIS: Like any farm in America, economics comes into play here too. Drought conditions in California and elsewhere have forced growers to cultivate fewer acres to conserve water, meaning tighter crop density is the key to making ends meet. So tractors of the future may need to hug the ground to fit under closely-planted trees, or be extra skinny to drive between them.
RAKESH KONERU: The main idea for us was to showcase the capability of what an electrification can bring into farming, but at the same time we’re also exploring the idea of what it takes for the farmer to be ready for future farming.
And every farm has a different, unique, requirement. If you go to a vineyard, for example, their needs are completely different, so when we see the market expansion, we want to explore the idea of, let’s design a chassis from the ground level up, which is well thought out you know, which can stick on for the next generations.
JOHN DAVIS: This type of custom design is well-suited for the flexible packaging afforded by electric battery packs. So it looks the E-volution of modern farming in the near future may well be fueled by the EV revolution of today.
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!