New software for more mileage

Published: Sunday 15 April 2007

-- cars are designed to perform at their optimum when accelerated at one particular level. A slight deviation from that and the vehicles constantly lose energy. Whether on gear one, two, three or four, you unwittingly lose out on fuel efficiency if you don't stick to the optimum level fixed in the laboratory.

Two young researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands have managed to get around this hitherto unattended problem with a minor modification to the car's software. John Kessels and M Koot, doctoral students from the university, have created a software patch that reduces fuel consumption by 2.6 per cent. It switches the dynamo, which charges the car battery, on and off during times when it is 'particularly inefficient for the engine to power it'.

"In a conventional vehicle, the alternator maintains fixed voltage. This means that when there's more load on the engine, the alternator requests for power. However, the operating point of the combustion engine determines whether the additional energy is produced efficiently. We have created a situation where the driver will have freedom to select the output voltage of the alternator. This way, he can decide whether electric power should be produced by the alternator or the battery," Kessels told Down To Earth.

Depending on whether the combustion engine was running 'efficiently' or not, the researchers generated more electric power and charged the battery. When it was less efficient, they used the battery instead. "Altogether, we improved the vehicle mileage by 2.6 per cent on a Ford Mondeo with a 2 litre gasoline engine," Kessel said.

The project, which was funded by Ford Forschungszentrum, Aachen, Germany, was initiated when the company came to the university wanting to know whether an energy management strategy could also work for vehicles with a conventional drive.

The university employed Kessels and Koot from the departments of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering respectively to conduct vehicular tests at the company's research lab.

When will the software hit the market? "It will definitely take some time. We must admit that further research has to be done on the battery. In our strategy, the battery is used more often and this leads automatically to additional battery wear. Unfortunately, little knowledge is available about battery degradation under real-world driving conditions. Therefore, research will be required to make sure that the benefits in fuel economy are not counteracted by costs for early battery replacement," Kessel explained.

However, the major advantage of the technology is the minimum hardware cost it entails. "Installing this system in a new vehicle will require only minor changes to the vehicle hardware. Only the alternator has to be modified and this will cost just a few dollars," Kessels added.

The team is currently looking at ways of measuring the characteristics of the vehicle online during driving to adapt the software periodically. "This will increase the robustness of the system," Kessel said.

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