Electric Cars for Army Posts, But Fuel Guzzlers for Combat

By Sandra I. Erwin
Electricity-powered golf carts are a staple on military bases around the United States. The Army now is asking manufacturers to design a larger and more sophisticated version of the electric golf cart in order to possibly replace thousands of fuel-guzzling sedans and SUVs.

The plan is to buy up to 4,000 “neighborhood electric cars” during the next six years, said Keith E. Eastin, assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment. He estimated that by substituting conventional automobiles with electric cars, the Army could save as much as $45 million over the six-year period just by not having to buy 12 million gallons of gasoline.

The Army’s neighborhood electric car, or NEV, is by no means a technological breakthrough. The NEV has been around for more than a decade. It is defined as a four-wheeled motor vehicle with a gross weight rating of less than 3,000 pounds and a top speed of 20 to 25 miles per hour. NEVs typically have a driving range of 30 miles per charge. They must be equipped with three-point seat belts, windshields and windshield wipers, running lights, headlights, brake lights, reflectors, rear view mirrors and turn signals. Doors are optional.

The Army wants a substantially scaled-up version of the NEV. “We need doors … We need a bigger vehicle to replace sedans or SUVs,” said Kevin T. Geiss, Army special assistant for energy security. “We have certain specifications,” he added. “It’s not just a golf cart.”

Manufactures that intend to compete for the contract have not yet provided prices for the larger NEVs. Geiss said the NEV will cost no more than what the Army currently pays to lease a conventional vehicle.

The official request for proposals will be published in January, Geiss said. The Army will buy 800 next year and plans to expand the fleet to 4,000 in subsequent years. That is a considerable share of the Army’s fleet of 30,000 cars that currently are used for on-post driving only.

“Not every vehicle on post is a candidate for NEVs,” said Eastin. Only a selected number of posts will receive them, mostly in mild-weather areas where it doesn’t snow. The plug-in vehicles only will operate inside the post. The Army does not expect to have to build special charging stations for NEVs. All that’s needed is a “longer extension cord,” Eastin said. They could be charged at golf courses.

Even though oil prices have plummeted in the past year, the Army is taking a longer view and plans to continue to invest in green technology. “Anybody who thinks we are going to have $2 gas for a long time is engaging in wishful thinking,” Eastin said. “We’re looking at five years out.” Curbing carbon emissions also is part of the plan, he said.

Further, the drop in oil prices does not translate into instant savings for the Defense Department. No matter how cheap the fuel, the military is saddled by massive “indirect costs” associated with the transportation and management of fuel supplies. Under a two-year-old policy, the Pentagon is required to measure the so-called “fully burdened cost of fuel.”

In war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost of fueling U.S. vehicles and weapon systems can be orders of magnitude higher than the actual price of the JP8 jet propellant that powers diesel engines of nearly all tactical ground vehicles and electrical generators.

The fully burdened cost — transportation, security, wear and tear — means that a $2 gallon of fuel ends up costing about $25. There is also the risk of losing lives, as has been the case in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops have been killed by roadside bombs that were aimed at the logistics convoys that deliver fuel. “That changes the equation,” Eastin said. Even minor reductions in fuel consumption can result in major savings and less risk for deployed forces, he noted.

Being able to measure the true cost of fuel also can be a valuable weapon when fighting the budget wars inside the Pentagon, Eastin said. “If you can defend your program because it’s more energy efficient, you can win the intramural battles over allocation of funding.”

The mandate of measuring “fully burdened” fuel costs will be tested by the Army and Marine Corps as they proceed to acquire a new truck — the joint light tactical vehicle — to replace current humvees. One of the key criteria for winning a JLTV contract is energy efficiency. The next generation of Army tanks, which is being developed under the Future Combat Systems program, is designed with energy-efficient hybrid-electric engines.

But none of these new vehicles is expected to be in operation for at least five to 10 years. In the meantime, the preponderance of the Army fleet will continue to consist of gas gobblers. Abrams tanks travel less than 0.6 mile per gallon of fuel, and Bradley fighting vehicles less than 1.7 miles on a gallon. Humvees get as few as 4 miles per gallon in city driving and 8 miles per gallon on the highway.

While electric cars may soon be found on Army posts stateside, the military remains years or decades away from having green combat vehicles. “These are the facts of life,” Eastin said. “What you don’t want to do is, in the interest of saving a few dollars, change the effectiveness of our combat systems.”

A project to develop synthetic coal-based fuel is under way by the U.S. Air Force, but it has been slowed down for financial reasons. The Army nonetheless is considering certifying some combat vehicles to run on synthetic fuel in the future, Geiss said.

Industry experts say the Army could begin to save fuel now, and does not necessarily have to wait for the next-generation vehicles to arrive. Just swapping old engines with new ones could immediately result in fuel savings, says Lou Infante, head of Ricardo Inc.’s military product group. The Michigan-based company received an Army contract to develop a “fuel economy ground vehicle demonstrator” prototype that will be used to gauge the highest theoretical fuel economy possible for humvee-like vehicles.

“Old inefficient engines should be replaced,” Infante said. Other components, such as transmissions, drive systems, tires, configurations of armor, thermal systems, all could be exchanged with modern systems and help to improve fuel economy,” he said. Ricardo will be testing this approach with the Marine Corps’ light armored vehicles.

Retrofitting older military vehicles with new engines, however, is far more complicated than it seems. The reason is that military vehicles have to be able to run on JP8, but modern engines for the most part cannot, unless they are substantially modified. “Engine designs have gone away from being a good design for JP8,” said Infante.

In 2004, the U.S. government mandated new emission standards for truck diesel engines. These less-polluting and more fuel-economical engines don’t run efficiently on JP8, Infante said. “The specification for commercial engines in North America is diverging far from what will run efficiently on JP8.” The composition of diesel fuel also has changed substantially in the past couple of years, while JP8 has stayed the same.

Ricardo is studying ways to convert commercial engines from diesel to JP8 so the military can begin to take advantage of these off-the-shelf engines that are more energy efficient.

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Land Forces

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