Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have launched a study into the impact of weather conditions on electric autonomous vehicles, and how the design can be altered to improve efficiency during different conditions.
The NCAR study is part of a larger three-year project, led by Western Michigan University and funded by the US Department of Energy, that looks to improve energy efficiency in self-driving cars and trucks.
Curtis Walker, project scientist at NCAR, said, “Autonomous vehicles are going to use a lot more power because so much processing is happening on board. Our goal is to determine how we can use weather information to help out the computing load and reduce the power consumption.”
Engineers already know that cold weather can substantially reduce the range of an electric vehicle, as well as lead to longer recharging times. Walker and his colleagues, including co-principal investigator Amanda Siems-Anderson, are planning to examine weather impacts systematically.
In addition to NCAR and Western Michigan University, the overall project includes Oak Ridge National Lab and DriveU.auto, bringing together expertise from the academic, government and private sectors.
“These types of cross-discipline and cross-sector collaborations are so important and can lead to substantial technological gains,” Walker said.
Leveraging weather information
The NCAR scientists have two main goals: identify the impacts of weather conditions on vehicle energy consumption and assess the potential energy savings that could be achieved by using information from various weather sensors.
To achieve the first goal, they will outfit two autonomous vehicles with advanced weather sensors and draw on other local weather observations as they operate the vehicles in a range of driving environments in Michigan and Tennessee. Weather information will be compared with energy consumption data from the vehicles to assess how weather is affecting energy usage.
For the second goal, the team will assess opportunities for the vehicles to use real-time information from weather sensors in order to maximize energy efficiency. This will include testing if the vehicles can run longer if they take alternative routes that leverage prevailing weather conditions.
“If flights can catch a favorable tailwind, perhaps autonomous vehicles could do something similar,” Walker said. “A basic question is: how can we use weather information from the perspective of route-planning optimization?”
Part of the challenge for the NCAR team will be to identify which weather sensors can be best integrated into a self-driving vehicle’s systems, enabling the vehicle to make adjustments seamlessly to minimize the demands on its batteries.
“We want that battery to last as long as possible, to give you as many miles and hours of driving time as possible so motorists don’t miss the range of their gas-powered vehicles,” Walker said. “Ultimately the goal is for the consumer and driver to have the best possible experience with a technologically innovative vehicle that works optimally in all weather conditions.”