Automotive batteries are technological marvels. But for all our dependence on them in both commercial and consumer applications, they largely are forgotten or ignored – until they fail. For most of the past 100 years, automotive battery development has been slow and steady, with most improvements focusing on longer maintenance-free life. Today, rising fuel prices, anti-idling laws, alternative-drive vehicles and an exponential boom in the power requirements on commercial vehicles with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2010-compliant diesel engines are driving a frenzy of research and development into automotive batteries.
Experts say the next generation of batteries in trucks and tractors will be smaller and lighter with greater energy storage capacity. Moreover, these batteries will be smarter – controlling and prioritizing energy consumption and acting on their own to counteract temperature extremes. Cold-weather starts soon may be alleviated by batteries that are intelligent enough to warm themselves on a harsh North Dakota morning before a key hits the ignition switch.
The proven six-cell 12-volt lead-acid automotive battery – known as an SLI (starting, lighting and ignition) battery – relies on a chemical reaction between the lead and electrolyte solution to create electrons that are converted into useful electricity for automotive applications.
While that solution has worked well for decades, recent headlines regarding hybrid-electric drivetrains, all-electric cars and pickup-and-delivery commercial vehicles contribute to a growing sense that these old lead-acid batteries soon may be obsolete.
But if you agree with that line of thinking, you’re already behind the curve when it comes to battery technology, says Brad Bisaillon, sales manager of strategic accounts and transportation for Trojan Battery. In 2001, when the trucking industry got its first taste of EPA’s diesel emissions regulations, electronic control modules first began to appear on trucks. “At that time, there was still only a single ECM onboard most trucks,” Bisaillon says.
In 2007, more ECMs appeared on trucks to control fuel injection processes and timing sequences to meet stricter emissions standards. 2010 EPA engines have added even more demand. A 2010-compliant Freightliner Cascadia tractor with a Detroit Diesel DD15 engine has nine onboard ECMs. “Just the electronics required to move the vehicle down the road have put a lot more demand on the battery,” says Bisaillon.
Factor in anti-idling laws along with a host of electronic gadgets brought into a truck by drivers – everything from high-definition TVs to toasters – and you’ve got a totally different set of electrical loads pushing the boundaries of what conventional SLI batteries can handle. Thankfully, absorbed glass mat or valve-regulated lead-acid batteries have the additional storage capacity and power density to handle these complex new electronic systems.
“I think many fleet managers kind of understand that power demands on their tractors have changed,” Bisaillon says. “But they still have a hard time understanding why their flooded batteries can’t keep up with the truck.” It’s not the battery’s fault, he says: Newer highly-advanced internal designs are required to keep up with these new power requirements.
While larger fleets such as Swift Transportation, Crete Carrier Corp. and Wal-Mart are embracing new battery technology, “many smaller and medium-size fleets haven’t recognized the need to change their battery types yet,” Bisaillon says.
Fleet managers can take heart as battery technology, regardless of the chemistry, is continually improving. “These improvements are likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, unless a new chemistry explodes on the alternative energy scene,” says Kaylan Jana, development support manager of specialty markets for Odyssey Battery.
Future breakthroughs in materials technology must overcome physical constraints such as the impact of high temperature on the life of a lead-acid battery, a characteristic of the chemistry itself and independent of the materials.
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