The press grind at the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) Annual and Fall meetings is a legendary grind. You’re pretty much in reactive mode the entire time. And, often, it’s not until after you get home that you start thinking about the long-term potential for some of the new products and ideas that get presented at the show.
Take trailer hub manufacturer ConMet, for example. The company has been concurrently developing its SmartHub and eHub trailer wheels for several years now. The SmartHub is a connected, “smart” trailer hub, while the eHub can recharge batteries with kinetic energy it gathers while the trailer goes down the highway. There is a more capable version with a small electric motor that can take that captured/stored energy and convert it to propulsion to help power a tractor-trailer when starting out or on a steep grade.
Both of these applications strike me as having the potential for providing a simple and elegant solution to some of the technology hurdles facing the next generation of commercial vehicles.
At TMC this past March, ConMet noted that it was now targeting the eHub technology as a common-sense solution for California and other West Coast reefer fleets that will soon have to ditch diesel-powered refrigeration units in favor of battery-electric units to comply with a fresh round of California Air Resource Board regulations coming into effect in 2023 and become increasingly stringent heading into 2025.
To my way of thinking, the eHub simply makes sense in that clearly, near-future trucks are going to feature more and more onboard electronics and battery systems. Moreover, the days of diesel-powered auxiliary motors – for reefers and non-idle auxiliary power units – appear to be numbered. Having trailer wheel hubs that continuously capture kinetic energy and keep truck batteries at a full state of charge just makes a lot of sense from multiple viewpoints.
The eHub has the potential to be even more of an enabler for emerging green and fuel-efficient technologies, in my opinion. I can see several ways this concept could revolutionize Class 8 trucking as we now know it.
From a fuel economy standpoint, there’s been speculation for some time now that future Class 8 tractors might have standard hybrid diesel-electric drivetrains that could provide electric propulsion when starting a loaded tractor-trailer up and moving, or when climbing steep grades. But why go to all the trouble of designing and maintaining hybrid drivetrains when relatively simple powered trailer wheels could do the very same job at a fraction of the weight, cost and complexity?
And what are the implications powered trailer hubs like the ConMet eHub have for long-range electric tractor-trailers? Right now, Class 8 battery-electric vehicle (BEV) technology has most trucks limited to a daily range of around 140 miles without any recharging. But what if that BEV tractor-trailer had, say, four wheel hubs on the trailer behind it that were constantly capturing kinetic energy and flowing that power back into its onboard battery packs? Would that amount to a significant boost in the rig’s overall daily range capabilities?
I don’t have the answers to those questions right now. But I’d bet a lot of very smart engineers are looking into them right now. But it seems to me a very simple, reliable solution to some of trucking’s current future-tech hurdles may be staring us right in the face.