How's this for using technology to save heavy truck fuel: Denver-based Intermap Technologies plans to use sophisticated mapping and GPS data to predict gradients and curves ahead of a truck, using that information and the truck's engine, load and road speed data to select optimum engine speed and gear ratios.

To achieve this, the company offered a grant to Alabama's Auburn University to investigate the potential, and develop a control system to save commercial truck fuel consumption. Initial evaluations show it may be possible to cut fuel use 3 percent compared to a traditional cruise control system, with little impact in journey times.

Intermap's enabling technology is its geographical information systems (GIS) three-dimensional road geometries. With GIS 3D, the project's initial focus is on validating simulation results and designing a predictive cruise controller and automatic gear shifting algorithm for all road locations that would calculate optimal vehicle speed and gear selection.

That's what a very experienced and conscientious driver would do to improve fuel economy, lower operating costs and, hopefully, get a reward in addition to the satisfaction of a job well done. But all drivers are not like that. Hence the research project.

So to address excess fuel burned on grades, Intermap has sponsored a research team headed by Dr. David Bevly, assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

Eaton is serving in an advisory role and reportedly sees significant efficiency opportunities in the project. "We are looking forward to the results of this work," says Daniel G. Smedley, manager of advanced automation and control for Eaton's Truck Technology group. "It opens up a new avenue of pursuit to help our customers get more miles out of a gallon of diesel fuel."

According to Wei Huang, a member of the Auburn team leading the research effort, the project is unique in a number of ways, "First, the designed system is tested with real commercial 3D road geometry. Then, the influence of the road geometry and sensor accuracy on fuel economy is investigated. The 3D road geometry and GPS- based control system is designed to reduce the heavy trucks' fuel consumption. The system consists of vehicle state estimators, the road geometry, and an optimal control system."

GPS technology is applied to fix the truck location, and Intermap's 3D road geometry is used to identify information on the road slope that lies ahead. An optimal control system then predicts – and ideally, achieves – ideal truck velocity and/or engine speed. Based on the road geometry, and taking into account fuel consumption and travel time, the optimal control system should automatically gauge when best to accelerate, decelerate, or change gears going into and coming out of slopes and curves.

This project underscores a conversation I had with David McKenna, Mack's Powertrain sales and marketing manager. We concluded that while cruise control can go a long way toward helping a driver maintain speed and economy, a good driver can beat cruise control by looking ahead and maintaining the truck's momentum. But, of course, not all drivers are capable of this kind of predictive driving.

If the control system delivers on its promise and shows a 3 percent gain, it has the potential to save a billion gallons of diesel fuel annually across the trucking industry. At today's fuel prices, that's in the order of $3 billion.