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UMN researchers look to tune up UPS trucks

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are trying to improve the energy efficiency of delivery vehicles.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Researchers at the University of Minnesota are trying to improve the energy efficiency of delivery vehicles.

In September, the UMN Thomas E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory announced it had been awarded a $1.4 million grant from the NEXTCAR Program of the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

UMN NEXTCAR researchers have partnered with UPS and electric vehicle manufacturing company Workhorse Group Inc. to develop technology to improve the fuel efficiency of cloud-connected delivery vehicles.

"We're trying to improve the efficiency of UPS hybrid electric delivery vehicles by 20 percent," said Will Northrop, associate professor and director of the T.E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory.

The three-year project specifically looks at cloud-connected delivery vehicles.

"Fleets like UPS and Metro Transit, for example, have data that are constantly being sent back to some location where they can analyze it to diagnose failures in vehicles or they can look for faults or other things. But what we're trying to do is send that information in real-time back to the vehicle in order to optimize for fuel economy. So that's where the innovation comes in," Northrop explained.

The project uses vehicle powertrain and routing co-optimization (or V-PRO) technology that uses data collected from vehicles, traffic information and fast computer algorithms to command the engine in the delivery truck when and how fast to charge the battery.

"So what we're trying to do is use the engine... the least amount possible in order to achieve the lowest amount of fuel consumption," Northrop said.

Researchers hope to apply the same technology to other delivery fleets, as well as hybrid electric transit buses.

According to Northrop, this technology could be an asset for future autonomous vehicles.

"Really with the advent of connectivity and automation and all the things like that, we're really looking for other avenues as to how do we run engines in the most optimal way," he said.

T.E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory opened in the fall of 2013 with a focus on engines, fuels, emissions and connected vehicles.