Hyliion shows going electric isn’t all big, heavy batteries

June 11, 2018

Chuck Robinson


Fully electric commercial trucks command a lot of industry buzz. So much, in fact, that it seems the industry is overlooking an electric solution that could make a difference in short order for long-haul trucking.

The solution is to adapt hybrid-electric technology used in passenger vehicles for diesel commercial vehicles.

Austin, Texas-based Hyliion Inc. has developed technology for Class 8 trucks that uses energy from rolling downhill to power an electric motor that helps increase fuel efficiency.

Soon, that technology will be added to the advancements already incorporated into the Starship truck created by Newington, Conn.-based AirFlow Truck Co. in a 4-year-old partnership with Shell Rotella.

The Starship is a prototype truck designed to create significant fuel economy gains for Class 8 trucks and trailers. It has an aerodynamic body and other advancements. In the near future, the advancements will include the Hyliion 6X4HE system.

“We will be installing the Hyliion system when we upgrade the truck in the upcoming months,” reports Bob Sliwa, founder and president of AirFlow Truck.

Sliwa said he expects the Hyliion system improves the Starship’s fuel efficiency by 10 percent to 15 percent.

Hyliion Inc. CEO Thomas Healy founded his company 2015 in Pittsburgh, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. The company this year relocated to Texas.

Healy’s work has been noticed by industry observers. He was named to Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 in 2017. He also won recognition as the NASA Tech Briefs “Create the Future” Grand Prize Winner 2016 and U.S. Department of Energy Clean Tech Company of the Year 2015, among other honors.

On top of that, he is working on getting a CDL.

A man and company on the move, on July 9 Hyliion announced acquiring the battery division in Irvine, Calif., of Northville, Mich.-based Gentherm, which had been its battery supplier.

The company’s focus has changed over its short history, though not away from the hybrid diesel-electric concept. Initially the focus was on a unit that replaced an axle on the trailer with one that generated electricity and had an electric motor. However, after beta testing with fleets, emphasis changed to putting the unit on the tractor. Ryder Supply Chain Solutions, P.A.M. Transportation Services and Mesilla Valley Transportation participated in the beta testing.

“Once we got into having demo units and working with the fleets, the fleets really wanted it connected to the power unit so it would always be used and not parked somewhere,” Healy told Land Line.

While full electric trucks would work well for local, short-haul situations, the lack of support infrastructure limits the practicality of using electric trucks for greater distances.

“We don’t see fully electric being a solution for long-haul anytime in the near future,” Healy said.

The system helps fuel efficiency not only by assisting the drive engine but also by providing cab air conditioning and powering other devices via the Hyliion auxiliary power unit.

The Hyliion 6x4HE attaches to the back of the cab/frame rail. Installers can attach it to any truck make or model as long as there is enough room on the back of the cab or frame rail. It takes a couple of days, Healy said. It can be retrofitted to an older truck or installed on a new one.

In fully electric trucks, the cost of the batteries is significant, maybe several thousands of pounds. The weight of the Hyliion system is about 800 pounds, batteries included. Since most U.S. states (45) allow an exemption from a truck’s gross vehicle weight of 400 or 550 pounds for an APU, the Hyliion system only takes a 250-to-400-pound bite out of the payload.

There are two questions on everyone’s mind: what does it cost to install the Hyliion system and how much can it cut fuel costs. Let’s start with the cutting fuel costs first.

The company estimates the hybrid diesel-electric part of the system can cut fuel costs by 15 percent, depending on the driver, terrain, weather and load. Hilly routes provide more opportunity for energy to be converted to electricity, the company explains, and boosts fuel savings. For routes on more rolling terrain, fuel savings of 7 percent to 10 percent are more realistic, the company said.

Another 12 percent in fuel savings comes from using the Hyliion APU. The company says that is savings from reducing idling while hoteling compared to a vehicle without an APU system when the diesel engine must keep running.

Hyliion also offers fairings to improve the aerodynamics of the trailer. The aerodynamic kit is from Austin-based FlowBelow, which estimates that potential fuel savings at 3 percent.

Potentially, Hyliion tallies fuel savings of up to 30 percent.

Then there is the cost.

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price to retrofit an existing vehicle with the Hyliion system is $39,000. On a new truck, the cost can be trimmed substantially since you don’t pay double for an APU and two axles. That brings the cost down to $24,600 on new truck installation, according to the company.

How fast it takes a truck owner to recoup the cost depends on a lot of things, including the price of fuel and how much the truck is used. However, if a truck is on the road 110,000 miles a year, the price of fuel is $3 and the driver stops for the night 50 hours per week, it can be paid off in two years, according to the company.

An important element of the system is the software that operates it. The cost for that software, named HySight, is free for the first year. The cost after that depends on what level of functionality users require.

HySight collects data from trucks, which is collected in the cloud. It uses the data to predict when best to use the energy in the batteries or to charge them. If the route is on a level area leading to a downhill stretch where there is a lot of potential for generating electricity, HySight will turn on the electric assist motor to improve fuel savings on the level area.

“A driver never wants to do downhill on a full battery,” Healy said.

HySight also knows when to turn the electric motor on to help going uphill. All of this is done automatically without the driver needing to do anything.

Hyliion’s 6x4HE system is getting some interest in the long-haul trucking industry. Shell Rotella’s Starship initiative will add to the test data already collected. It is proof, at least in the near future, that the potential electrification of the commercial truck industry isn’t only about the batteries.