Engineering Future Fleet Vehicles – Student Powered Prototypes

UPS truck

As part of an ongoing research program to retrofit multiple medium-duty fleet vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin Center for Electromechanics have partnered with New York’s Unique Electric Solutions (UES) and the Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) from Atlanta, Georgia to convert a UPS delivery van into a zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The program is sponsored jointly by the US Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.  By the end of the DOE program, 16 medium-duty trucks with hydrogen fuel cells will be outfitted for deployment in California, which currently is constructing the nation’s largest hydrogen fueling station network.  The unique University-Industry partnership and framework under this project is not only addressing the nation’s need for clean alternative transportation fuel, but is also addressing Industry need for young engineers with skills and expertise in the renewable energy sector, thus providing a great opportunity for budding engineers.

As a Junior Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, this project not only addresses a common concern to many in my generation (our petroleum dependency in the transportation sector), but it also affords a rare opportunity to apply engineering principles as they come up in the classroom.  The challenges presented by this project have been numerous, and as a student working on this project, I have gained valuable exposure to the design of electric propulsion systems. This experience will be extremely relevant as the world progresses into using more alternative fuel sources.  Additionally, as we decommissioned the old diesel engine and supporting components to replace them with the cutting-edge iron-phosphate lithium batteries, hydrogen fuel cell, and high voltage electric motor, it became apparent how different of an undertaking it is to retrofit an existing system, as opposed to designing something from scratch. The inherent challenges continue to become lessons, and as the design constraints seem endless, so do the opportunities to find solutions.

The opportunities offered by this program don’t stop in the exciting application of engineering tools and principles.  A program of this scope with so many contributors requires a high degree of collaboration and coordination, and participating in the weekly meetings alone offered valuable insight into the scope of the project, as well the complexities in integrating the hydrogen and electric systems.  During a day-long hazards and safety analysis for the new vehicles, the theme of engineering ethics took center stage as we moved through potential hazardous events during daily operation of the truck. It was inspiring to see so many man-hours dedicated to exhausting the possible scenarios that could cause harm to the operator or public. To leave no stone unturned, nor concern unanswered, required a concerted effort.  This occasionally lead to disagreements, though when resolved, yielded the best solutions.  The hazard and failure mode analysis not only gave the project a new dimension, but it added a unique insight into a facet of engineering seldom touched on in school.

The early part of the new year will see the completion of the prototype truck.  Successful testing and optimization of the various algorithms and integrated systems will lead to phase two of the program, where 15 additional trucks will undergo a similar retrofit.  Regardless of the future scope of this program, the lessons it has offered the student interns through these last few months will be enduring.  I am confident that the experience gained while working alongside talented engineers, participating in advancing drivetrain and propulsion systems for the vehicles of the future, and being involved in the complexities of project management will be huge boons to our careers, particularly in the face of a changing transportation sector.