Viewpoint: Military Vehicles Should Make Leap to Hybrid Technology

By Mark Signorelli
The U.S. military can be credited as the bellwether for technological trends and breakthroughs that have positively reshaped society. This is especially true when new technologies first built for the military are later introduced to the public and business through commercial applications.

On the flip side, we have also seen situations where technology first developed for commercial applications can help to quickly address the needs of the military.

One area where the military has the opportunity to apply technological lessons from the commercial sector is the adaption of hybrid-electric drive technology for tactical vehicles.

In the commercial sector, businesses will only invest in and market a product when they are confident there will be a demand. While hybrid technology has been around for decades, one could make the case that it has only become commercially available and popular within various transportation sectors because of consumer and government demands for more fuel-efficient vehicles and a desire for a greener planet. And it could also be argued that the scalability and storage capacity of battery technology is now becoming more affordable and reliable.

Faced with crushing fuel costs with no relief in sight, cities have turned to hybrid buses and garbage trucks, while consumers have flocked to hybrid vehicles en masse during the past decade. Manufacturers have invested in new hybrid technology and brought to bear vehicles that matched these demands.

A good case in point is the recent rise in popularity of hybrid buses that are used by public transit agencies around the United States. Cities started a serious move toward hybrid buses in the mid- to late-1990s and now more than 2,000 are in use by municipal transit systems across the country including New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Washington, D.C.

New York currently has the world’s largest hybrid fleet. When the city made the shift to hybrid, transit officials had to factor in the costs of purchasing the more expensive buses, training maintenance staff, and the newness of the technology. However, when they began the pilot program in 1998, New York City Transit officials moved forward because they were driven by a commitment to a bigger ideal. They were responding to demands for buses that could deliver better performance, increased fuel efficiency and reduced emissions as part of the city’s commitment to an alternative fuel vehicle program.

The buses emit 90 percent less particulate matter, 40 percent fewer oxides of nitrogen and 30 percent fewer greenhouse gases than conventional buses — while improving fuel economy by 30 percent. To put that in real terms, as of May 2010, New York’s hybrid fleet had logged nearly 100 million miles of passenger service and reduced fuel consumption by 5 million gallons and CO2 emissions by about 50,000 tons.

It is worth noting that locomotives have used hybrid-electric propulsion going back to the 1920s. Heavy equipment, dump trucks, race cars — all vehicles that operate in severe conditions and require an optimal level of performance — use hybrid-electric propulsion systems. Since 1999, nearly 1.5 million hybrid cars have been sold in the United States, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

Just as it did for these other sectors, hybrid propulsion offers significant opportunities for the military to meet its growing demands for reduced fuel consumption as well as combat vehicle performance.

Applying hybrid technology to military vehicles is not a reach too far. The military services and defense industry are not unfamiliar with hybrid propulsion systems. BAE Systems built a hybrid propulsion test-bed in a Bradley and M113 back in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2003, engineers drove the hybrid-powered non-line-of-sight cannon concept technology demonstrator using only battery power. That system was built in eight months. It worked. Several defense manufacturers during the past decade have successfully introduced hybrid propulsion in robotic and tactical vehicle platforms.

The military has a strong interest in hybrid systems, but its use in ground platforms has consistently been met with skepticism because of worries about cost, maturity and complexity — probably some of the same concerns skeptics had when New York City began the move to hybrid buses in the 1990s.

Consuming about one million barrels of oil every three days, the bulk of the Defense Department’s energy spending is being driven by mobility fuel. Calling today’s combat vehicles “gas guzzlers” is putting it lightly. The only problem, as pointed out by the Government Accountability Office, is that the Defense Department “lacks an effective approach for implementing fuel reduction initiatives.”

Hybrid systems alone cannot adequately address the defense energy challenges, but it is a step in the right direction. For instance, it is estimated that adding a hybrid system to the Army’s new infantry fighting vehicle program, the Ground Combat Vehicle, could increase fuel efficiency by 10 to 20 percent.

While it may not make sense for every vehicle application, hybrid propulsion generally offers more power exportability for supporting digital operations. It also improves mobility as a result of less weight, has lower volume, improved acceleration, silent mode options and increased torque and offers propulsion redundancies in the event that part of the vehicle is disabled.

One of the biggest flags raised by opponents of hybrid systems for military applications is cost. Today, hybrid-electric drive systems are competitive with standard mechanical drive propulsion systems and are significantly less expensive when considerations such as fuel efficiency and reliability are factored into life-cycle costs. Many of these gains are because industry has already invested in proven hybrid propulsion systems.

Over the last 20 years, the commercial sector set the standard with hybrid technology because their markets demanded it. Military customers, meanwhile, are seeking a new level of performance and hybrid is a sound option in some cases. The commercial sector has realized some significant returns because of suppliers’ commitment to meeting new demands. Perhaps it is time for the military to follow their lead.

Mark Signorelli, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is vice president and general manager of the Ground Combat Vehicle program at BAE Systems.

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Land Forces

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