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The Long and Winding Road – ARPA-E Retrospective with Program Director Chris Atkinson

Since October 2014, Dr. Chris Atkinson has served as a Program Director at ARPA-E, focusing on the Agency’s energy, transportation and vehicle technology portfolio. Throughout his tenure at ARPA-E, Dr. Atkinson has worked to advance transformative technologies through a broad range of ARPA-E programs, including developing new approaches to building cooling equipment and air conditioners (BEETIT), energy storage technologies for advancing the adoption of electric vehicles (RANGE), novel hybrid solar energy systems (FOCUS), high efficiency engines (OPEN 2015, OPEN 2018) and natural gas storage tanks for passenger cars and quick-filling at-home fueling stations (MOVE).

In 2016 Dr. Atkinson initiated ARPA-E’s NEXTCAR (Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles) program that uses connectivity and automation to reduce vehicle energy consumption. NEXTCAR was the first initiative of its kind to consider the energy implications of Connected and Automated Vehicle (CAV) operation, coordinating and co-optimizing vehicle dynamic controls and powertrain control to maximize vehicle efficiency under real-world driving conditions. NEXTCAR projects have the goal of enabling at least a 20% reduction in energy consumption for future connected and automated vehicles.

As Dr. Atkinson’s term as an ARPA-E Program Director comes to a close, we sat down with him to reflect on his ARPA-E experience, the NEXTCAR program and the future of powertrain technologies, and what’s next for him.

As the NEXTCAR Program Director, you’ve been involved with the program since its inception. What are a few of the key takeaways from the program so far?

NEXTCAR has demonstrated that in the near term there are significant vehicle efficiency gains to be had by employing connectivity in conjunction with low levels of vehicle automation. These gains exist for light-duty passenger cars and light trucks, medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks, and buses. Essentially, the more look-ahead or preview information that a vehicle has access to, the greater its potential energy efficiency. This information can be obtained by virtue of each vehicle being connected to other vehicles around it, the traffic infrastructure it interacts with, or even the cloud. The information that most impacts vehicle fuel efficiency is the behavior of the vehicles immediately ahead – as well as the traffic around it –, the traffic conditions or congestion and weather conditions on the vehicle’s route ahead, the timing of upcoming traffic signals, and the upcoming road grade.

Are there any specific technologies developed through NEXTCAR that you think will be successful in moving out of the development phase and to market adoption in the near future?

The NEXTCAR project teams have developed and implemented a range of technologies, from eco-routing (finding not just the fastest route from A to B, but also the most energy efficient path) to hybrid electric powertrain optimization for plug-in vehicles. A number of teams have implemented semi-automated eco-driving strategies that offer appreciable fuel and energy efficiency improvements, including platooning for heavy trucks. The application of these technologies in new vehicles in the near-term will allow for significant energy and fuel savings in the future vehicle fleet, and have caught the attention of vehicle manufacturers and automotive suppliers alike.

With NEXTCAR winding down, what’s next for this space and what does the future of this technology look like?

We believe that there is significant opportunity for the application of several NEXTCAR technologies to fully automated (L5) vehicles, as well as to increase the usable driving range of fully electric vehicles. Increasing levels of automation that ultimately take the driver out of the loop will offer not just safety enhancements, but also energy savings. The introduction of fully automated vehicles in the future will be a boon for energy efficiency and safety enhancements. Of course, all of this good work will be undone if the total number of vehicle miles traveled by the fleet increases at a greater rate, which makes improving the energy efficiency of each and every vehicle an imperative.

While at ARPA-E, your work has centered primarily on vehicle engine and transportation technologies. Are there any technology areas you’ve worked on over the years that you hope ARPA-E continues to develop after you’ve left?

I think that internal combustion engines, particularly those that operate with high efficiency on low-, zero- or negative-net carbon fuels, should not be neglected. Fifty or sixty percent of overall energy efficiency conversion devices are a distinct possibility! In the future we need a broad portfolio of high efficiency, low impact propulsion technologies to meet our automotive transportation needs. Beyond engines and vehicles, there is a tremendous opportunity and challenge in developing highly efficient, low-impact heating and cooling systems for residential, commercial and industrial applications. We expend so much energy conditioning air for our use and comfort that we need to find ever-more efficient ways to do so. One of my favorite ARPA-E projects is a passive radiative cooling device that the Agency has funded since its conception. This radiative cooler cools a surface below the ambient temperature by losing heat to deep space through emission from a cleverly engineered surface architecture—even in full sun! It is an example of ARPA-E’s strength in taking an energy efficient technology all the way from the lab to commercialization.

Reflecting upon your ARPA-E experience, what was your impression of ARPA-E coming in and how has that view changed over time since then?

I remember feeling a sense of awe when I first joined ARPA-E that such an organization existed. I still feel that amazement every day – ARPA-E is a remarkable organization with such a strong and capable group of people working together in a seamless way to improve our nation’s energy efficiency and technical and industrial competitiveness. I am very proud to have been a part of this effort for so long.

You’ve been a core member of the ARPA-E team for 5 years. Looking ahead, what’s next for you?

Being at ARPA-E has been the highlight of my career to date, and it will be extremely difficult to top this experience. But I am looking forward to starting a smart mobility initiative in an academic setting in the near future. Mobility can be thought of as “transportation with a conscience” and energy efficiency definitely has a large part to play, along with a myriad of other elements including economics, policy, human behavior and even human health. I intend to use my ARPA-E experience to develop an impactful research, development and education program in the mobility area.

For more information on ARPA-E’s NEXTCAR program and its project teams, click HERE, and to learn more about the future of mobility and transportation, check out Dr. Atkinson’s Fast Pitch from the 2019 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit on “Energy and the New Mobility” HERE.