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Bosch’s electric motor breakthrough makes semitrucks cheaper, cleaner, quieter

Scania semi truck

While companies like Tesla and Nikola are working overtime to electrify the millions of semi trucks that zigzag across America, German engineering firm Bosch is taking a different approach to reducing emissions from the heaviest vehicles on the road. It has developed a compact electric motor that fits most semitrailers — a relatively simple and affordable solution that promises to deliver significant fuel economy benefits.

As it stands, the average semitrailer that carries Amazon packages, groceries, or cars is no different than a smaller trailer or a camper in the sense that its axles roll freely. The trailer’s wheels play no role in moving the truck forward. Bosch’s breakthrough zaps the wheels into motion. It takes the form of an electric motor that recuperates the kinetic energy generated while braking and channels it to a battery pack. It sends the energy back to the axles when the truck starts moving to provide a fuel-saving acceleration boost. The motors also kick in when the truck needs additional power, like when it’s going up a steep hill.

If this sounds familiar, it’s likely because a growing number of increasingly efficient hybrid and electric passenger cars come with a similar brake energy recuperation system. The motor integrated into the axle is the same unit Bosch manufactures for automakers worldwide. It can be retrofitted to most existing axles. Alternatively, Bosch builds turnkey electric axles.

Electrifying a semitrailer can save up to 2,500 gallons of diesel annually, according to the firm. On average, the fuel cost $3.22 per gallon on August 27, 2018. Based on that figure, truck operators can save about $8,000 per year by electrifying their trailers. That’s a significant sum in an industry where every cent counts, but the technology also offers other benefits.

The electricity captured while braking can power the refrigeration unit fitted to trucks that carry perishable goods. Powering the trailer also opens the door for automatic maneuvering, a real boon for drivers who regularly park in tight, crowded areas. Finally, electrifying a semitrailer’s axles makes remote-controlled parking possible, though only on private property due to the legal framework surrounding the technology.

Bosch notes that the ideal setup adds two motors per axle. Customers who want to keep costs in check can opt for single-motor electrification. Pricing information hasn’t been released yet. The company explains that, in its view, the system needs to pay for itself within two years.

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