Behind the Scenes with Dr. Chris Atkinson, Program Director at ARPA-E

January 6, 2016

Behind the Scenes with Dr. Chris Atkinson, Program Director at ARPA-E 
Dr. Chris Atkinson discusses his background, why he came to ARPA-E, and the possibility of an interdisciplinary solution to creating energy-efficient, automated vehicles.   

Dr. Chris Atkinson

1. Tell us a little about your background. How does your previous experience provide insight into your work at ARPA-E?

Dr. Chris Atkinson: I have always been fascinated by the field of energy; it is ever present yet largely ignored in day to day life. I believe strongly that the most effective energy-efficiency solutions lie at the intersection of a number of different disciplines rather than in just one specific area. This interdisciplinary approach to energy is certainly a passion of mine that I get to explore through my work at ARPA-E. My background is in both chemical and mechanical engineering and my doctorate is in mechanical engineering from MIT, focusing on the thermal sciences. I worked in academia for a total of 12 years, and then as a consultant and technology developer in the area of advanced vehicle and powertrain technology for the past 15 years or so. 

My professional emphasis has for many years been on vehicle fuel consumption and exhaust emissions reduction, as well as the implementation of alternative propulsion systems. ARPA-E’s wider efforts lie at the identical intersection of research, development and commercialization of energy technologies, and so it seemed like a perfect fit for my background.

2. Why did you decide to come to ARPA-E, and can you describe your experience so far serving as a Program Director?

Dr. Chris Atkinson: Reducing energy consumption across all of society, and especially in transportation, is imperative for a wide confluence of economic, environmental, and energy security reasons. ARPA-E works at the forefront of advanced energy technologies and the opportunity to participate in shepherding new ideas all the way from concept to commercial realization was too good to miss!

ARPA-E is an exceptional organization with the well-focused goal of accelerating energy innovations that will create a more secure, affordable and sustainable American energy future. The agency is staffed by highly motivated and capable professionals who are able to flourish in an organization where they can really make a difference. I have had an excellent first year as a Program Director, and am looking forward to initiating an impactful program in reducing the energy usage of future connected and automated vehicles.

3. ARPA-E recently released a Request For Information (RFI) on the Energy-Efficiency Optimization of Connected and Automated Vehicles – why is ARPA-E potentially interested in this technology area? 

Dr. Chris Atkinson: We, as a nation, have made great progress in reducing the fuel consumption of our vehicles while retaining the utility, performance, and safety that we require and expect. But we have a long way to go to reduce the energy intensity of our future vehicle fleet. The emergence of connectivity, including vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications, allows for a wealth of new information to be shared between and among vehicles. The main motivation for the deployment of connectivity and automated technologies has to this point been in enhancing vehicle safety, but we at ARPA-E see a compelling additional opportunity to reduce vehicle fuel consumption and energy usage. For example, a range of new collaborative vehicle behaviors can be facilitated by new developments in connectivity, automation, control, sensing and communications, and we are interested in learning the full energy-savings potential of these technologies.

4. What do you think the future of vehicles will look like in terms of automation?

Dr. Chris Atkinson: Many vehicles available today already have one or more critical functions, like acceleration, braking, and steering automated in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and at least one production vehicle is capable of fully automated operation – with the driver ready to take over control if required. 

In the near future, you could be able to tap a button on your smartphone, and an automated vehicle will pull up to your house and transport you to work. This automated vehicle communicates with the other vehicles on the road, and with the infrastructure it’s navigating, providing the passenger – and other cars on the road with a magnitude of safety not previously known. Since connecting vehicles and the infrastructure will reduce human errors and the accidents they cause by a significant margin, vehicles can be lighter while still achieving increased levels of safety.

Once the vehicle fleet is fully populated by automated vehicles alone, we have the promise of significant energy consumption reduction due to lower weight requirements for equivalent safety. But until we get to that point, the energy that we use in transportation will continue to be significant, and as a result, we need to find new, innovative ways to reduce it and its accompanying environmental effects.

Energy-Efficiency Optimization for Connected and Automated VehiclesEnergy-Efficiency Optimization for Connected and Automated Vehicles

5. Other than safety, do you think fuel efficiency of individual vehicles or all vehicles on the road at one time can be improved by these technologies?

Dr. Chris Atkinson: Beyond safety, you just need to look at traffic congestion today to know that it is a wasteful and frustrating exercise. Connectivity and automation open up fruitful new avenues for vehicles to collaborate on an ad-hoc basis to save energy. Collaborative and connected actions like platooning, traffic signal synchronization, eco-routing and congestion mitigation are valuable methods for reducing fuel consumption, and we at ARPA-E are interested in seeing what further automotive energy-efficiency technologies lie beyond those.

6. What gaps currently exist in our understanding of these vehicle controls and how can they be filled to allow for more energy efficient operation of future vehicles?

Dr. Chris Atkinson: Up to this point, powertrain and vehicle control technologies have been reactive rather than forward looking. With the recent advances in vehicle connectivity control, for the first time, we have the opportunity for control to be forward thinking and predictive. To that end, we are seeing a convergence of new and innovative improvements in vehicle sensing, both real and virtual, and new model-based calibration and optimization techniques. The potential for using vehicle controls to optimize individual vehicle fuel efficiency for conventional and hybrid vehicles, and improve energy efficiency for electric and plug-in vehicles, is also significant and well worth investigating. These energy -efficiency improvements will accrue due to connectivity and automation, but will be equally valuable for individual vehicles operating alone.

7. It sounds like this is an interdisciplinary problem and perhaps there could be an interdisciplinary solution? 

Dr. Chris Atkinson: The convergence of new connectivity, automation, sensing, information, computation and optimization technologies is opening up a whole new realm of possibilities for reducing the energy consumption of future vehicles, both on an individual basis and as part of the entire automotive fleet. Collaboration is fundamental to the ARPA-E model; bringing people together across disciplines to address challenges in new ways. Here, merging both the areas of powertrain control and automated and connected vehicle operation is necessary to find those innovative and creative solutions that reduce automotive energy consumption. It is an exciting and challenging opportunity for the automotive world, and we are looking forward to an enthusiastic response from innovators, industry, academia, national labs, and other technology developers. 

For more information on Dr. Chris Atkinson, please visit his profile on the ARPA-E website and explore all ARPA-E program director profiles