Modular electric trucks for city logistics

Colleagues and sparring partners: Project managers Gerret Lukas (PEM) and Josha Kneiber (BPW) jointly put the electric truck for city logistics on its wheels.

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Text: Joachim Geiger
Photos: Sabine Schmidt, BPW

Diesel out, electric drive in – a truck with a diesel engine can become a sparkling clean electric truck for city logistics. In order for this transformation to succeed, researchers at RWTH Aachen University are developing a modular system with all the necessary components. The heart of the system is the eTransport electric drive axle from BPW.

Economist Josha Kneiber is a member of BPW’s electric mobility team. The 28-year-old is responsible for business development in that area.

Industrial engineer Gerret Lukas conducts research at the Chair of Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) at RWTH Aachen University. The 27-year-old is a project manager on the LiVe project. Lukas is currently working on his doctorate in the field of additive toolmaking.

As part of the LiVe research project, the Chair of Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) at RWTH Aachen University has put an electric truck for city logistics on the road. Is the university becoming a vehicle manufacturer?

Gerret Lukas: We’ll leave truck production to the commercial vehicle manufacturers. It is, of course, nice when research is followed by successful real-world application. That was the case with the StreetScooter and the city car e.GO Life. Our institute’s focus, however, is on sustainable and flexible production technology for electric vehicles. But there are many areas in which the LiVe project and the commercial vehicle industry have much in common. Today many logistics companies are under pressure to adapt their fleets to strict environmental regulations. This is why affordable solutions are in demand, especially in city logistics. And that is where the PEM comes in: we want to give manufacturers and fleet operators the ability to equip a truck with an electric drive quickly, efficiently and inexpensively. To this end, we have developed a prototype in the 7.5-tonne weight class that we are using to study technologies for an electric drive concept. The truck is a commercially available Isuzu N series, which the Japanese manufacturer has provided us to use as the platform.

What concrete tasks are on the research agenda?

Lukas: As part of the LiVe project, we are putting together a modular design system for an electric drivetrain. This is the heart of our project. The modular system is used in the first stages of electric truck development and production. Such a solution is not yet available on the market. A truck for city logistics or regional distribution requires a different specification than a truck for tradespeople or municipal companies, however. This is why we are designing the modular system in such a way that it can flexibly meet different customer requirements. At the same time, the objective is to reduce the life cycle costs of electrical delivery vehicles. This applies not only to the individual components in our modular system, but also to a vehicle’s use and disposal.

Researcher Gerret Lukas and service provider Josha Kneiber are working closely together to integrate the eTransport electric drive axle into the research vehicle.

How have you equipped the modular system so far?

Lukas: We are replacing the entire conventional engine and the associated systems. That means that in the beginning, we had to answer a number of questions. What should the new drive unit consist of in the first place? Which solution is the easiest to produce, assemble and maintain? And which solution will offer the greatest benefits to the customer? To answer these questions, we examined a central motor and traditional wheel hub motors. After that, it quickly became clear to us that BPW, with its fully integrated drive solution, was the best choice for our modular system. We have now found the backbone of our system: the eTransport electric axis. When it comes to the other components, our search has been more difficult. There is a real lack of fitting solutions on the commercial vehicles market. For the power steering, for example, we are currently using a pump from the passenger car segment. We would like to have an electric caliper for the parking brake and the auxiliary brake – but there is simply nothing available in this class.

How is BPW involved in the LiVe project?

Josha Kneiber: We want to better understand all aspects of the electric mobility ecosystem. Our collaboration with the PEM is an excellent opportunity to learn more in this field. This also applies to the total cost of ownership (TCO), meaning the costs incurred over a vehicle’s entire life cycle. We always have this in mind with our other core products such as running gear and brake systems for truck trailers and semi-trailers. The eTransport electric drive axle is a key technology that can also make a difference financially in terms of the service life of an electric truck. The good thing about our system is that it can be integrated into various vehicle models. Together with our partner Paul Nutzfahrzeuge, we are currently converting a fleet of Mercedes-Benz Vario vans into electrically powered vans. In the LiVe project, the challenge was that the PEM wanted to adopt the existing brake system during development of the prototype. Within a short period of time, however, our engineers were able to adapt the geometry of the electric axle to the installation space in the vehicle and meet the legal requirements for the technical equipment.

One of the PEM researchers’ clever ideas was to install a plastic plate on the bed of the cargo area above the drive axle, which allows the electrical system to be inspected.

How does BPW compete on the market with its system solution?

Kneiber: With its eTransport electrically powered axle, BPW is the only supplier of a fully integrated drive solution on the commercial vehicle market. This strengthens our expertise as a mobility and systems partner for commercial vehicle manufacturers and fleet operators. The first step into the market for us is traditional retrofitting, as we are doing with Paul Nutzfahrzeuge. The second step would be to upgrade an empty chassis. StreetScooter is pursuing this approach in cooperation with Ford. The manufacturer is now building the StreetScooter Work XL model as an electric vehicle on the basis of a Ford Transit chassis. Step number three would be original equipment. This means we would supply the axle directly to the manufacturer’s production line.

Batteries are one critical aspect of life cycle costs. Does your modular system have a solution for this?

Lukas: The battery concept is one of our institute’s main focal points. Our research is geared towards using modular components to develop a flexible system. The battery in our electric truck for city logistics will, in future, consist of several module packs comprising individual modules with lithium-ion cells in pouch format. The module packs can be adapted to the required power demand. This is where a tangible advantage of the eTransport drive system comes into play: since it does not require much installation space, we can accommodate a great deal of battery capacity in our Isuzu research vehicle’s transmission tunnel. This has a positive effect on axle load distribution and driving stability. This is the better solution compared to batteries outside the ladder frame.

Where does this concept stand when it comes to sustainability?

Lukas: This is a particularly important aspect of our battery system. We have developed a special replacement solution for the modules. If a battery only has 80 per cent of its capacity left, this is often due to ten per cent of the cells in the module. If you removed the module and replaced it with a new one, the battery could still be used. In future, we even want to upgrade the modules themselves by simply replacing the broken cells.

»This collaboration with the researchers involved in the LiVe project is helping us further understand all aspects of electric mobility.«

Josha Kneiber, Business Development Electric Mobility at BPW

Would this battery concept also be an option for BPW?

Kneiber: We’re obviously taking a close look at this model. Additionally, we are always available to the PEM to bounce ideas off one another during the integration of the module packs into the drive system. In fact, we plan to further deepen our cooperation with our colleagues in Aachen in the future. The LiVe project’s agenda also includes the development of three vehicles in the 18-tonne class. The plan includes a traditional electric drive, a system with a hydrogen fuel cell and one with collectors for overhead lines. BPW’s electric drive axle can be used in all of these.

What’s next for the LiVe project?

Lukas: We are now at the stage where we can refine the details of the drive and battery system. We already understand quite well how the components in our modular system work together. Now we are actively looking to compare different solutions. The end of the project is still one and a half years away – a lot is going to happen in this time.

Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety is funding the ‘Life cycle cost reduction in electric distribution transport via an individually adaptable drivetrain (LiVe)’ research project through its ‘Renewable Mobile’ programme. The Chair of Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) is acting as the consortium leader. Isuzu Motors Germany, StreetScooter and RWTH Aachen University’s Machine Tool Laboratory are cooperation partners. The LiVe project launched on 1 September 2017 and will conclude at the end of August 2020.

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