By Bruno Vanzieleghem

Everyone knows about America’s long-standing love affair with the automobile. But with its on-going economic transformation, Chinese car sales are on track to create a highway vehicle count that surpasses that of the United States by 2035.

Both nations now face the climate change threat and other environmental impacts posed by this burgeoning population of vehicles, and to counteract them, both are working on a transition to an electrified vehicle fleet. Although the potential CO2 reduction benefit of electric vehicles (EVs) compared to gasoline vehicles depends on the fuel source of the electricity, emissions should improve as the U.S. and China shift to cleaner energy sources for electricity generation.

In November 2009, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao launched the Electric Vehicles Initiative to bring the ideas and perspectives of both nations together to address the common challenges they face. The initiative involves the development of joint standards on EV plug design and battery testing, demonstration projects and public education, as well as the creation of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC).

In January 2011, the Clean Vehicles Consortium (CVC) was launched as one of the CERC’s three research partnerships to support joint research of the nations’ leading experts in clean vehicle technologies. On the U.S. side, the effort consists of a coalition of university, national laboratories and industrial partners led by the University of Michigan. This coalition is uniquely positioned to develop global solutions to the challenges of creating next-generation clean vehicles and the policies that support them.

The $50 million CERC Clean Vehicles Consortium, sponsored in part by the U.S Department of Energy and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, leverages the expertise of engineering, natural science and the social science thought leaders.  CERC-CVC is working to build a strong knowledge base, improve technologies, and develop human resources to help the U.S. and China each shift to a low-carbon economy. Clean vehicles such as EVs are an important piece of these efforts but more research is required to make batteries more reliable, engines and other subsystems more efficient, and materials lighter.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, faculty and students from the U-M led CERC-CVC, and industry partners met in Ann Arbor in August to review progress on the initiative’s joint clean vehicle energy research projects. Among the specific results shared:

  • Engineers from U-M, in cooperation with a team from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, have developed techniques for the modeling, analysis, design and control of power-split hybrid powertrains. An optimal design method was developed that is approximately 12,000 times faster than other exhaustive optimization methods such as dynamic programming. The optimal design method has been used to analyze powertrain configurations with varying constraints on the number of planetary gears and clutches.
  • Researchers from the Beijing Institute of Technology, working with American collaborators at MIT, demonstrated a new cathode design that slows battery degradation and maintains capacity ‒ a significant step towards making high energy density lithium-sulfur batteries a reality and thus improving battery performance.
  • Tongji University and U-M researchers have developed models to simulate the performance of lightweight vehicles in crash safety tests, optimize vehicle aerodynamics and study the effects of battery layouts on crashworthiness. These models enable the rapid exploration of thousands of variations in structural and geometrical parameters, allowing an engineer to optimize lightweight body structure for a clean vehicle in terms of safety, cost, manufacturability and aerodynamics.

Administered by the U-M Energy Institute, the U-M CERC-CVC consortium is one of three joint collaborations between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Partner institutions with U-M include Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Sandia and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Industry partners include Ford Motor Co., Delphi Automotive, Denso Corp., Eaton Corp. and Honda Motor Co.