FDU researchers develop breakthrough hybrid system for commercial vehicles

Researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Global Transportation Studies Program in Petrocelli College have created a new kind of hybrid system. Designed for existing gasoline-powered vehicles, this system allows for inexpensive conversion. The system is fully on-demand, which allows for the maximum fuel economy under low-speed conditions.
Prof. Adrignolo, P.E. and Sai Sankar, Senior Research Engineer, developed the hybrid system. The system offers increases in fuel economy of up to 60% and the system can be plugged into a standard electrical outlet to recharge the batteries. Further boosting efficiency, the system also incorporates regenerative braking, so every time the vehicle brakes, energy goes back into the batteries.
hybrid van 1Above: FDU researchers have designed an innovative hybrid system for light commercial vehicles that can improve fuel efficiency by up 60% on local roads. The prototype is installed in this 2007 Ford E-150 van. (Photos by Sai Sankar)
"My interest in this technology comes as a result of the oil embargo of 1979,” says Adrignolo, Director of the Global Transportation Studies Program. “With the 1979 embargo, suddenly, there were huge lines of cars waiting for gasoline. My original research attempt was with a 1979 Plymouth Horizon converted to a fully electric vehicle. Unfortunately, the battery technology at the time was such that if you operated the heater and defroster, it reduced the range from 30 miles to about 10 miles per charge. It was not until better batteries became available, that my interest in electric vehicles reemerged.”
Sankar was inspired to work on this hybrid system after watching the rise in electric and hybrid vehicle development. “I saw companies like Tesla getting into the electric vehicle business,” he says. “And that got me thinking, ‘What do you do with the approximately 250 million gas-powered vehicles already on the roads now?’ Obviously, we can build new vehicles, but it will take a long time to replace all of them. That’s when it hit me: if we were to retrofit these vehicles, they would be both more environmentally-friendly and also more economical to drive.” 
Their second vehicle was built in 2008 and was a 1994 Plymouth Voyager minivan. This was a pure plug-in electric vehicle with lead-acid batteries and produced a range of 30 miles on flat road conditions. They then used the know-how gained from this project to build their next vehicle.
Hybrid van 2Above: The internal controls for the hybrid system. Designed for low-speed driving conditions, the system is entirely on-demand, which gives the driver the freedom to turn it on when driving on local roads and to shut it off for highway driving.
With a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $10,000 in research funding from FDU’s Petrocelli College, the hybrid project was started. “That may sound like a lot of money,” says Sankar. “But typical vehicle development usually costs upwards of a billion dollars. That’s billion with a ‘B.’” 
To save money and stay within their small budget, parts were sourced locally and off-the-shelf items were used whenever possible. “We have a philosophy of keeping it simple,” says Sankar. “About 30% of the finished design is built with off-the-shelf parts while parts that had to be custom-made were machined by local manufacturers.” 
The basic design for the hybrid system only took about six months; however the refining process took longer. “Total design time was about three years, which is about the same development cycle that car companies have,” says Sankar. “To save time, we used a Silicon Valley approach to development — that is, we tried to get to prototypes as quickly as possible so we could spend as little time as possible on paper. This compressed the development time and significantly reduced our costs.”
Hybrid van 3Above: Monitoring equipment to observe the condition and charge of the hybrid system’s battery pack, which is mounted underneath the vehicle.
The system was installed into a 2007 Ford E-150 van. A heavy vehicle with a 5.4 liter V8 engine, the van averaged only 12 miles per gallon on local roads before the conversion. With the hybrid system in place, the van easily achieved 17-19 mpg on local roads.
The beauty of the on-demand design is that it provides an assist to the gas engine, boosting fuel efficiency at low speeds, but can be turned off for highway driving. The operator can shut it off for high-speed driving conditions, as it is more advantageous to drive in gas-only mode on highways. However, for local roads the system has a substantial benefit.
The market for this system is existing light commercial vehicles, such as delivery and service vehicles.
Looking towards the future, the researchers see many other applications for the technology, including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones). They are actively adapting this system to increase the flight duration of drones.