In an age of hybrid electric and hydrogen fuel technology, most of today’s vehicles are still powered by combustion engines, which waste more than 60 percent of energy from fuel. Finding a cost-effective means of utilizing waste heat is key to increasing fuel efficiency. Since the 1960s, NASA has used the Seebeck Effect — a phenomenon whereby the temperature gradient in thermoelectric semiconductor elements generates an electrical voltage — to power space probes. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) take heat from decaying plutonium and convert it into electricity. Each RTG includes two plates made of different metals that conduct electricity; the plates are joined and kept at different temperatures to produce an electric current. Now, automotive engineers are hard at work applying a version of this concept to earthbound vehicles in a cost-efficient manner.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) began funding efforts to develop commercially viable prototypes that generate electricity from heat in automotive exhaust. One of the teams, including GM and the University of Michigan, is researching the implementation of shape memory alloys into exhaust systems to use wasted heat to help power both hybrid and conventional vehicles. The implications of such research are far-reaching — a thermoelectric module that increases fuel efficiency by 10 percent would save more than 100 million gallons of fuel a year for GM vehicles in the U.S. alone.
Accelerator Force Feedback Pedal
Automotive innovations such as self-parking and blind-spot detection are founded on the concept that technology functions without the pesky Achilles’ heel of human error. However, it can also amend another type of human error: wasteful driving habits. The Accelerator Force Feedback Pedal from Continental Engineering Services can be programmed to vibrate or exert a counter-pressure against the driver’s foot when it detects that too much force is being applied. It also implements sensors to help monitor a safe distance from other vehicles, both as a safety mechanism and to determine what the most fuel-efficient manner of driving would be in a certain scenario. At times when the driver deems it necessary to apply the pedal at full force, the reminder can be adjusted. Such a system lowers fuel consumption by approximately 5 to 10 percent, simply by modifying driver behavior.
Insect Night Camera
Although only a quarter of traffic takes place at night, it is estimated that a disproportionate 40 percent of fatal and serious car accidents occur during this time period. Today’s most advanced night vision systems incorporate infrared lighting to detect obstacles on dark roads, but this technology still leaves much room for improvement.
For example, drivers could benefit from a new type of camera that imitates the visual mechanisms of insects. Toyota engineers teamed up with biologists and mathematicians at Lund University in Sweden to uncover the science behind the multiple-lens vision of nocturnal insects such as moths and dung beetles. The findings were converted into mathematical algorithms that produce digital images in a way that mirrors how the nocturnal insects enhance sight in the dark. A prototype of this insect-inspired camera is currently being tested at Toyota’s developmental facility in Brussels, Belgium.
Collaboration can inspire the kind of innovation needed to revive the automotive industry when it needs it the most. “The days are gone when we would do this kind of groundbreaking work on our own,” said GM’s Taub, referring to the company’s thermoelectric research. “We need to continue to find ways to combine our deep technical knowledge with others who can help take our ideas from concept to commercialization.”
Scientific research and collaboration with other fields will continue to bring exciting applications to the automotive industry, including, but not limited to, anti-fogging windshields from researchers in China, and sensors that use infrared light to expertly gauge traction available for braking on icy or snowy roads. Whether automotive innovation stems from NASA or Mother Nature, one thing is certain: the sky, and even outer space, is no limit.