Eaton Corp. has a rich history of technology and innovation aimed at increasing fuel economy and improving overall efficiency. The group charged with maintaining that flow of fresh technology into the Eaton Vehicle Group is the Vehicle Technologies and Innovation team. Mihai “Mike” Dorobantu, an SAE International member since 2008, is director of this team responsible for finding and cultivating new and significant growth opportunities. AEI Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan recently caught up with Dorobantu to discuss the R&D efforts underway at the company.
The Vehicle Technologies and Innovation team was formerly known as the Truck Technology team, what was behind the change?
We reflected the fact that in 2009 we formed the vehicle business out of the truck business and the automotive business. This was implemented because the two former businesses were really starting to intersect. The passenger car people were looking for extending their applications to heavier vehicles; the heavy-duty truck people were starting to look at expanding their applications into lighter vehicles, and it became clear that the two businesses were meeting with the same customers. So there was a lot of synergy to put all the technologies together and offer a significant portfolio to the same customers. From an R&D perspective, we now look at the vehicle as a whole, at least the powertrain as a whole, and we do advanced R&D programs that leverage this position and offer significant fuel-economy value.
How do you go about fostering innovation at your company?
It starts with a very deliberate decision to invest in R&D and sponsor R&D at the senior level. Because of that, it’s not just putting money to it, but it’s also building the organization and building the capability, hiring the right Ph.D.'s in the critical technology areas. The third piece of this is asking the question, what should we be doing R&D on? For that, we have structured events by which we interrogate the market and try to discover the unmet needs, sometimes even the unarticulated needs of the future market, and in that we involve our customers, thought-leaders, the government from a regulatory perspective, and all kinds of stakeholders from the transportation business to help us focus on what the real issues are.
Where is your group seeing the largest opportunity for fuel-economy improvement?
I don’t think there is one solution. There is certainly a number of significant areas from which we can see a lot of fuel-economy benefit. The first one is really around how the engine is operated, optimizing the active part of the engine, which is the air system and to some extent the fuel system. The second big driver is engine-transmission optimization. There are things that can be done on the engine but only provided that the transmission satisfies certain functions. The third piece for fuel economy lies broadly in automation. Moving away from manual transmissions that also need big engines running fast, whereas fuel economy needs small engines running slow. Intelligent automation that takes into account what’s happening on the road through either radar or GPS signals so that you understand the grade of the road or even traffic information that tells you about the traffic and traffic speed. The fourth piece is hybridization. Hybridization doesn’t really work for every application, but for applications like the vocational space, it can deliver.
Eaton offers transmissions with up to 18 speeds, do you see that growing even further?
We don’t see a need for more speeds. I think the changes that we’re going to see are more on the architecture of the transmissions. Eaton is investing a lot in new transmission architectures that will eventually replace the manual transmission and even the automated mechanical transmission. Today the transmission architecture is really driven by fuel economy. The reason we have 18 speeds is because we have some performance applications where vehicles have to launch off very steep grades with very heavy loads, so we need a lot of ratios for startability and gradeability. But from a fuel-economy perspective, anywhere between 10 to 14 speeds covers what you need from a fuel-economy perspective.
Where is your group focusing its efforts to achieve size reduction of batteries?
When we’re looking at batteries, we’re finding that if we assume that we don’t know anything about the drive cycle and if we assume we don’t know anything about the driving environment we are forced to use a relatively large battery so that we can provide the hybrid functions of the vehicle essentially under any circumstance. I think if we take some of the things from the intelligent automation about the predictive nature of the drive cycle you have a lot of information that may allow you to manage the engine and the electrical motor generated torque differently such that among others you can reduce the size of the battery. We have an advanced project funded by ARPA-E that looks at the hybrid vehicle as a whole. From simulations we have reasons to believe that we can probably reduce the battery size by 50% in most of our hybrids, but that involves using information that is either available today or will be available shortly about the environment in which the vehicle is being operated.