Wrightspeed Combines Gas Turbine And Batteries For Big Fuel Savings

What do a supercar and a garbage truck have in common?

The answer, says Ian Wright, founder and CEO of series hybrid powertrain maker, Wrightspeed, is “both need lots of power.”

And, lots of power normally requires lots of fuel, but Wright’s San Jose-based company has technology combining a compact “microturbine” engine with plug-in series hybrid architecture promising major power and fuel savings.

How much power? As one example, an undisclosed European manufacturer is working on an all-wheel-drive car with Wrightspeed’s 1000-horsepower system that will make a Tesla Model S look slow.

How much fuel savings? Wrightspeed just sold its first batch of plug-in truck powertrains that the company says could save as much as 27-times the fuel of a 100 mpg car.

We’ll have more on that shortly, but the principle behind high-tech trucks targeting all sorts of industries besides waste haulers is one you may have heard of before.

Rather than making an already fuel-efficient passenger car more efficient through hybridization or full electrification, giving such electrification treatment to a big, heavy, fuel-thirsty truck stands to save much more fuel.

The X1 about to walk away from a Porsche Carrera GT.

The X1 about to walk away from a Porsche.

You may also have heard of Ian Wright before. The native New Zealander worked for Tesla in the days before the Roadster, and broke away to focus on his own designs.

An early project was his X1, a retrofitted all-electric car built into the Ariel Atom’s chassis. This rear-wheel drive – not for sale – car does 0-60 in 2.9 seconds, and shows its tail lights on a race circuit to the Tesla Roadster with ease.

But Wrightspeed, while still looking at fun machines, thinks it’s more fun to make a profit, and this it is intent on doing by targeting vehicle operators with the most money to gain by increasing fuel efficiency.

The Route

The name of Wrightspeed’s proprietary truck technology is “Route,” it also has a “Route HD” for heavier duty applications, and its powertrain is called a Range-extended Electric Vehicle (REV).

More than just garbage trucks, Wrightspeed is catering to the class 3 to class 6 commercial market consisting of 11,000 GVWR to 26,000 GVWR. Its customers are anyone and everyone operating commercial fleets, including companies “like Cintas, UPS, Waste Management, Brinks, Frito Lay, etc.”

The number of trucks in this class range on American roads is estimated at 2.2 million, and Wright said his company delivers only its retro-fittable powertrain, leaving things like building the chassis, body and other details to others.

A) Range-extending generator; B) Battery; C) Extended battery life (cooling, software); D) Geared Traction Drive units; E) Fuel tank.

A) Range-extending generator; B) Battery; C) Extended battery life (cooling, software); D) Geared Traction Drive units; E) Fuel tank.

Wrightspeed is also now looking at powertrains for class 7 and 8. Class 7 is 26,001 GVWR to 33,000 GVWR. Class 8 is 33,001 to 80,000 pound GVW, and includes tractor trailers.

“The refuse trucks we are working on are 54,000 pounds GVW, he said.

Regarding the class 3-6 trucks, these are often used in daily commercial routes — thus the name – and burn through hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of fuel annually, which means high operation costs.

As an example the Isuzu NPR, which holds 70 percent of the world’s cab-forward market, averages on a metro cycle about 12 mpg with traditional diesel engine.

Retrofitted with the Wrightspeed system, it was measured at 44 mpg – a bit more than a Toyota Camry Hybrid’s highway EPA figure, and a 300-percent improvement.

Proximal to the rear differential are two 250-horsepower motors (Wrightspeed logo).

Proximal to the rear differential are two 250-horsepower motors (Wrightspeed logo).

But this truck is more sophisticated than a parallel hybrid like Toyota makes – in fact it is more like a Chevy Volt but transcends that level too.

The Route system’s generator, instead of a gas or diesel internal combustion engine, is a Capstone microturbine – as alluded to above with the Supercar which uses some of the same components.

It’s called “micro,” because it’s relatively tiny, but this is a gas turbine, the basis for an aircraft’s jet engine. Unlike a jet, it doesn’t make thrust by accelerating air out of the exhaust. Instead, more like a helicopter engine – or as a generator as is the actual case – it turns an output shaft.

The microturbine can run on CNG, diesel, landfill gas, or other fuels. It idles at 25,000 rpm, and Wright says, normally operates at its peak-efficient speed of 96,000 rpm.

There is only one moving part, no cooling system needed, and the emissions are 10-times better than mandated by the California Air Resources Board for this class of vehicle –– and it does it with no after treatment technologies.

That is, it needs no catalytic converter, no particulate filter, no urea injection, The system does not even have a muffler, and operates at an acceptable 65 dB sound level at a 10 meter’s distance.

The conventional-looking vertical exhaust pipe might make one suspect the truck has a diesel under the hood, but it’s more akin to a small jet engine, and makes a “wooshing” sound that passersby often cannot quite pinpoint, Wright says.

Powering the truck’s wheels is 1,100 pounds-feet of torque operating through a two-speed GTD – Geared Traction Drive.

Wright says the traction power from two GTDs is 300 kw (402.31 horsepower) and the microturbine replenishes the batteries after a 30-mile or so trip with 30-kw (40.23 horsepower) output operating purely as a generator for the Nanophosphate battery pack.

All of Wrightspeed’s motors, inverters, thermal systems, and battery packs are its own in-house intellectual property.

The battery acts as a “big buffer” he says and unlike a Chevy Volt whose 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas generator merely sustains charge, the range-extended pure series hybrid Wrightspeed powertrain recharges the battery.

It takes around 40 minutes, and the driver can leave it running while the truck is parked, or shut it off.

Once the batteries are charged, the microturbine shuts off regardless, as its job is only to supply electricity to what otherwise operates like a battery electric vehicle.

The vehicle also utilizes very aggressive regenerative braking that feeds as much as 400 horsepower reverse torque.

Route_power

“The wheel torque can be as high as 5,000 pounds-feet per wheel,” says Wright, and “Yes, it can stop the truck on an incline without using the brakes!”

Wright says operators soon get used to it, and wind up liking it, and it too feeds sizable power back to the batteries.

All told, the system allows for all-day range, and drivers never have to pull over and plug in, unless they want to. When not in service, or as an alternative, the Route systems do allow plugging in.

The battery size in some NPR prototypes was 26 kwh, and Wrightspeed has already had its system tested by undisclosed clients. It has just made its first sale of powertrains with 39-kwh batteries, and this company too is off the record, Wright says.

Wrightspeed is working on a larger pack as well, he says, but the powertrain is essentially right-sized to the application.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Battery range depends on the truck’s weight and how it is driven. Wrightspeed’s packs are smaller than the up-to 85-kwh pack in a Tesla Model S, but that 1,200-pound pack represents more expense.

Wrightspeed’s approach is different. Some fuel is burned, but the savings for a truck that may get single-digit mpg adds up significantly, and this sweet spot is where Wrightspeed hopes its business proposition pencils out.

Wrightspeed is unlike Tesla – and unlike light-duty truck retrofitter VIA Motors – in a few ways.

It is focusing on some the heaviest consumers of fuel who have the most to gain by slashing fuel bills and projected payback is three to five years depending on usage.

Wrightspeed only sells powertrains, so it does not have to learn the intricacies of building the chassis and body.

It does not have plans for now to build turn-key vehicles, as its area of specialization is the powertrain, and really, the main value added.

Fleet operators are accustomed to replacing whole powertrains, and these could easily cost $30,000-$40,000. It’s when an otherwise roadworthy truck needs a new powertrain that swapping in a Wrightspeed Route system could make the strongest business proposition, says the company.

Coming back to how a big heavy truck can save more fuel than a 100 mpg urban car, the answer is based on average usage cycles for the respective vehicles.

A city car, says Wrightspeed, averages 12 mph for 12 hours per week equaling 7,500 miles per year. Assuming it got 100 mpg, it would use 75 gallons of fuel annually. Compared to a 40-mpg hybrid, which would use 188 gallons annually, the 100 mpg urban commuter would save 113 gallons per year.

“However, the Route can get trucks 44 mpg (cost equivalent) at an average of 30,000 miles per year at, that’s 700 gallons,” says Wrightspeed. “When the Route replaces an 8 mpg conventional powertrain that burns 3,750 gallons annually, the fuel savings is 3,050 gallons. That’s 27 times more fuel saved.”

This is not fuzzy math, but it is an ideal scenario.

Obviously if you drive more than 7,500 miles per year in your car, or drive slower or faster that will change the equation, and obviously Wright is comparing a truck driving 30,000 miles versus the car’s one-quarter that annual distance.

But even if they both drove the same distance annually, the truck stands to save several times more fuel, and this is why Wrightspeed is in business.

The Circuit

As for automotive applications, Wrightspeed says it sees taxis as its best use for the fuel-saving and emission-slashing plug-in series hybrid technology, but it is now working with a supercar manufacturer using Wrightspeed’s “Circuit” derivation of its REV powertrain.

As far as we’re told, no publicity has been garnered for the car with four 250-horsepower motors – one inboard at each wheel – and the microturbine and related hardware, but this is not the Rimac car we’ve seen from Croatia, but a “real OEM” is making it.

The_Circuit

Will we one day see a car roll out of a secret garage with two-and-a-half times the power of a Tesla Model S combined with significantly lower curb weight?

True, it will be a series hybrid like Fisker might have wanted to build if its engineering was up to it, and the company had survived, but instead of a clunky gas engine and mediocre mileage, it could make the Batmobile look run of the mill – and sound like it.

Wright said the company has just patented the system that enables torque vectoring, stability control, traction control and ABS.

Whether it will run toe-to-toe or faster than a McLaren P1 or Porsche 918 Spyder remains to be seen, but this will have more power, and Wright says, unprecedented four-wheel control to make even ordinary drivers perform like heroes.

Supercar

The software, which Wright says was just patented, dynamically controls each of the four wheels independently. If the car is driven hard into a corner, it controls slip angle, torque speed, and can even apply reverse torque to, say, the inboard wheels or as necessary.

A brain does the thinking in microseconds and does what no ordinary car could do.

The less than complimentary term for such tech is “nannies” but all the supercar makers are going this way to keep their high-paying patrons on the road, and pointed forward when they romp out and play in cars with too much power for an average driver.

Of course, says Wright, if you dive into a 15 mph corner at 100 mph, the car “won’t prevent suicide” and even the laws of physics – while seemingly stretched with each tire monitored and manipulated – will take over if the absolutely ham-fisted insist.

Funded

How much does the Route or Circuit retrofit cost?

“Yeah, we don’t publish that, sorry,” said Wright, but, “Customers are happy.”

Wrightspeed set up shop in San Jose and was welcomed in an April 7, 2011 ceremony presided over by the city’s mayor, California Energy Commission vice chair, and others from the “cleantech” community.

Since 2010 to present, it raised $16.5 million in venture capital investments, and also received $1.2 million previously from the California Energy Commission, and recently received $5.7 million more for Advanced Vehicle Technology Manufacturing, as part of the agency’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program (ARFVTP).

The company is hiring, and says the government money is based not just on environmental and fuel conservation goals, but for its economic potential as well.

The grant, says the company, “will indirectly catalyze hundreds of California jobs, through suppliers and the end users of the Route, whose fuel costs will be significantly reduced, ultimately leading to a better hiring climate.”

Still getting up to speed, Wrightspeed projects profits in 2015, and says marketing head, Maya Giannini, things are going “great.”

“We have customers clamoring for our stuff, our technology works very well,” she says, “better than our competitors’ and we have identified a market that burns a lot of fuel per vehicle per year, which means real ROI for our customers.”