Electric Vehicles that Learn: Harnessing GPS for Optimal Efficiency (Video)

The Toyota Prius fuel efficiency numbers show that it shines in city driving. But what if the car could learn from its environment?
Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University

We already know that GPS systems can make traffic flow more smoothly, they can help you drive more fuel efficiently, and they can even be applied to track global problems like climate change or water scarcity. But what if they could also be used to make your actual car smarter too? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon believe that combining GPS with batteries, supercapacitors and regenerative braking could provide a huge boost to electric vehicle efficiency in an urban environment. Now I'll be the first to admit that I am no physics or computing genius, but the basic principles behind the CREATE Charge Car project seem sound, if not revolutionary. What if, rather than engineering electric vehicles to be the best possible compromise for your average driver, we instead created vehicles that could learn and optimize their performance according to the drivers' specific commute, and even driving style.

By tracking elevation information and GPS mapping, the researchers have shown that it is possible to create "learning" regenerative braking systems that optimize the flow of energy between the motor, batteries and a supercapacitor that acts as a buffer between the batteries and the motor—limiting the strain on batteries that do not like to be charged and drained in quick succession. (By optimizing the size of the supercapacitor to the average urban commute, they were able to keep it to 1/500th the size of the battery.)

In theory, the GPS could even track everything from upcoming traffic conditions, and even whether traffic lights are red or green, and adjust the flow of power accordingly. The result, say the researchers, is that EVs can be designed to use almost exclusively regenerative braking - recapturing a huge amount of the energy that is normally lost in city driving. (Most hybrids and EVs currently only capture a small proportion of energy back from regenerative braking.) This type of system would also result in increased battery life—and with batteries making up a major part of the cost of electric vehicle ownership, that can only be a good thing.

As is so often the case in sustainable design—if we take the time to think past simply finding drop-in replacements for our current modes of transportation, sources of energy, housing systems or anything else, we can create opportunities for much mroe radical and positive change.

Tags: Electric Vehicles | Energy Efficiency | Transportation | United States

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