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The Future of Hybrid and Electric Technology for Army

The Future of Hybrid and Electric Technology for Army

Power and energy, from a global technological perspective, is under pressure. The combination of global legislative pressure, industry disinvestment in internal combustion engine technology, decline in production, changing attitudes and demand will eventually constrain the internal combustion engine to bespoke usage if not extinction. For Army, at some point power and energy change will become less negotiable, and options taken for granted in the first quarter of the century may cease to be options in the future.

When people consider hybrid or electric vehicle propulsion technologies, it is highly probable that they do so within a context of environmental preservation or curtailing ownership costs. For some, ownership may be motivated by some form of political or personal ethical gratification, but for others, the opportunities that hybrid and electric vehicle technologies offer are fundamentally pragmatic and much more tangible. For Army, the benefits of electric or hybrid vehicle technologies extend well beyond fuel efficiency and offer the organisation, as an Army in Motion, real opportunities to progress objective and future force capabilities. 

Globally, pressure is mounting on government entities to acknowledge and act on what is being popularised as a resource and climate change crisis. Numerous leading economies are responding to the mounting pressure to act and legislating points in time from when fossil fuel dependant technologies are to be actively restrained. Of note are the number of states ceasing sales of new petrol/diesel vehicles in the next 15 years (see Figure 1). Current trends in Australia suggest a somewhat disparate reaction to global technological and environmental initiatives; given the expansive and isolated geographical nature of the Australian continent, this scepticism may be rational and be in part responsible for Australia’s modest uptake of electric vehicles. Inevitably, however, this will work against Australia’s national interests in the medium and longer term. It has the potential to create unfavourable conditions in the domestic automotive and energy sectors as industry and government authorities are later forced to rapidly close the technology and infrastructure gap with foreign frontrunners. Change is not always desirable; however, forced change in times not of our choosing is not only undesirable, but potentially chaotic and expensive.

Global trends likely to influence vehicle propulsion technology

Figure 1: Global trends likely to influence vehicle propulsion technology, and negatively influence fossil fuel as an enduring source of energy.[1]

In addition to government-legislated targets, several leading automotive brands are pre-empting mandated deadlines by ceasing research, development, and production of internal combustion based technologies. The two leading automotive industry brands, Volkswagen Group and Toyota, have declared their positions on this matter. In particular, diesel-based technologies have been identified as having no future in the automotive industry due to impossibly difficult legislative constraints set by European Union Emissions Standards. Toyota will phase out production of all diesel engine vehicles by 2020 with the Toyota Australia Vice-President stating, “Our clear direction, which is aligned to global [direction], is that we will have three powertrain variants: hybrid electric, full electric and fuel-cell technology. They’re the three things that we will focus on in the future”. Volkswagen have also made public commitments to phasing out internal combustion engine based cars—in this case by 2026.

The collective global momentum created by environmental reform initiatives, legislation, and industry divergence from internal combustion engine technology will shape the ADF’s future force. Australia’s automotive technology and products are predominantly imported from Europe and Asia, countries with a firm vision of a future free of the internal combustion engine. So despite Australia’s position on the matter, its consumer market—including Defence—can only consume what is made available by the automotive industry. However, this period of change should not be viewed negatively as the end of a golden era, but rather the beginning of a better one, with better capabilities for both the general consumer and the ADF.

In the context of ADF land capabilities, there are a number of compelling reasons why future vehicle platforms should employ hybrid or electric propulsion systems, and in the most part for unanticipated reasons. Hybrid and electric vehicle configurations are inherently more adaptable to evolving technology and innately support sub-system growth. Conversely, internal combustion engines paired with conventional transmissions are not as adaptable to evolutionary development, and risk pushing vehicle capabilities towards unrecoverable obsolescence. The potential of hybrid and electric technology goes well beyond frugality of fuel consumption or relieving pressure on a supply chain, with some examples illustrated in Figure 2 below.

Illustrative opportunities available to improve platform

Figure 2: Illustrative opportunities available to improve platform performance through implementation of hybrid electric propulsion systems.

A vehicle chassis that is engineered from the outset to run electric drive systems, be it via separate hub motors or modular on-board motors, facilitates a degree of future‑proofing that can exploit step-changing technology as it becomes available. For example, within a Generic Vehicle Architecture, a diesel generator can be exchanged with a fuel cell or other emerging technology energy source; however, a conventional diesel propulsion system cannot be as easily substituted. There is also increasing demand for directed energy weapons (DEW) and other high energy use sub-systems. A typical vehicle mounted DEW can demand between 10 – 50 KW of electrical energy. An electric or hybrid electric vehicle is intrinsically designed with electrical power generation in mind, and therefore is more future ready for capability growth.

Global investment in new renewables is now beyond double that of fossil fuel investment, implying that hybrid and electric technology will continue to advance while platforms that depend on fossil fuels will decline or even become obsolete. The combination of global legislative pressure, industry disinvestment in internal combustion engine technology, decline in production, changing attitudes and demand may drive the price of fuel very high. It may also drive a wedge between the internal combustion engine and the direction vehicle and transportation technology is going. So investment now may derive significant future savings – from a cost of ownership perspective, but also in respect to the cost of transition.

Developments in robotic and autonomous systems, and novel methods for harvesting, storing and using energy, will also have a defining impact on how a future land force will operate. But then Army’s dilemma is knowing when and how to transition to alternate energy systems, be it for infrastructure or platforms. This is in order to avoid finding itself propping up obsolete and unsustainable platforms and in the process risk a lack of operability with the world around it. That nexus in time is now before us—as an Army in Motion it is time to seriously look at introducing this technology into the objective force.

[1] National policy dates set by various countries obtained via open source media.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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