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Truck Tech: Rare earth alternative edition

Avoiding the next semiconductor shortage, a biodiesel breakthrough and C-suite moves

Editor’s Note: Corrects name of interim CFO at Proterra.

This week, Tula Technology Inc. thinks it has a better idea for electric motors that could ease worries about the availability of rare earth materials; a pilot project using B100 biodiesel exceeds 600,000 miles; and Aurora Innovation and Proterra Inc. get new leadership in the C-suite.

Is this the next semiconductor shortage?

The energy density of batteries gets a lot of attention in the electric vehicle space. The more energy a battery can hold, the longer the driving range and the less so-called range anxiety. But there is another, equally important, component in EVs — electric motors.  

Many people have heard of rare earth materials — not to be confused with the recordings of Rare Earth, the 1960s rock band from Detroit.

Unless you’re into science or the periodic table of chemical elements is more than a distant high school memory, you may not know why and how they matter. Rare earth elements are used in permanent magnets that power most electric motors. They are not all that rare in nature. But they are rarely concentrated in amounts significant enough to extract and process.

More than 92% of EVs use permanent magnet motors today because they are efficient and power dense. The vast majority of rare earth materials — 91% — are located in China, according to a white paper published by San Jose, California-based powertrain controls company Tula Technology Inc..

Get ready

The combination of demand and availability, Tula contends, could make rare earth materials the next semiconductor shortage that has wrecked supply chains globally, along with COVID, of course. Already prices for rare earth materials are running about 70% higher year-over-year. Trade tensions with China could make availability an issue at any price.

Tula Technologies CEO Scott Bailey with one of the company’s engine dynamometers converted to test electric motors. (Photo: Tula Technology)

Tula is best known for its dynamic skip fire (DSF) engine controls that deactivate cylinders in about 1.5 million General Motors cars and trucks. Tula is in preproduction testing on a diesel dynamic skip fire (dDSF) for several trucking OEMs after testing with Cummins Inc.(NYSE: CMI).

Now Tula is turning its attention to synchronous reluctance (RE) motors that don’t require rare earth materials. They are less efficient than PM motors. But sophisticated software control drives make them simple and cost-effective. Tula’s Dynamic Motor Drive modulates the torque of RE motors, allowing them to operate at their peak efficiency points.

It is a corollary to cylinder deactivation for internal combustion engines.

3 questions with Tula

I spoke with Tula CEO Scott Bailey and John Fuerst, senior vice president of technology and innovation, about the situation. Their responses have been edited for clarity.

FREIGHTWAVES: Is the prospect of rare earth materials being the next semiconductor shortage just a scare tactic?

BAILEY: “The intent isn’t to scare people. What we see is a situation where China controls production of roughly 85% of the rare earth materials and magnets. They are also the largest consumer. What they have traditionally done is rationalized production to keep pricing fairly stable. Now what’s being projected is an increase in rare earth materials from today through the end of 2030 of about five times demand. Price increases of 6-10% a year through 2030 is one of the predicted outcomes, assuming everything is able to be supplied.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Is the use of synchronous reluctance motors with your Dynamic Motor Drive a supply chain workaround, or is it a better approach?

BAILEY: “What we’re really getting at is motors that rely less on magnets to supply torque and other alternatives that get you away from this permanent magnet issue. We feel DMD is a good balance of cost and performance. We can take a synchronous reluctance machine with DMD and make it almost as efficient from an energy efficiency standpoint as a permanent magnet machine. The difference is very, very slight. And the source and supply problem is resolved, at least when it comes to rare earth.”

FREIGHTWAVES: With OEMs trying to reduce dependence on rare earth materials, isn’t there a chance the issue works itself out?

FUERST: “Clearly OEMs around the world are working on ways to do that. When BMW or Mitsubishi or Tesla talks about the benefits and their efforts in the area of synchronous reluctance machines, for us that’s good news. We’re saying, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ That’s exactly what we want, that globally people are going to recognize or decide that it makes sense to go with the low-magnet content machines. We see the industry and Tula working on the same problem.”

Tula’s idea for better electric motor efficiency: Dynamic Motor Drive. (Photo: Tula Technologies)

Big boost for B100

A pilot program that tested 99.9% biodiesel in five Class 8 over-the-road trucks suggests a pathway to higher volumes for the nonpolluting B100 fuel made from vegetable oils, used cooking oils or animal fats, according to Biodiesel magazine.

“Today most diesel engine manufacturers allow biodiesel up to B20 in their engines, but as we look toward the future and carbon reduction needs, we are looking for opportunities to run higher blends in this very necessary market,” Scott Fenwick, technical director of the National Biodiesel Board, told the magazine.

The program, a collaboration of Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), Optimus Technologies, Illinois Soybean Association, American Lung Association and the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, covered 623,922 miles of real-world driving on B100 from February 2020 through July.

“By using B100 in this study, we were able to reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 1,376,048 pounds and demonstrate the impact biodiesel can have on carbon reductions moving forward,” said Colin Huwyler, CEO of Optimus Technologies, which made the aftermarket system that allowed the use of B100. 

It won’t get the buzz of truck electrification, but the project evaluated the Optimus Vector System in longer-haul over-the-road fleets. The system is already used in shorter-mileage, local fleet applications.

Technical data evaluating fuel economy, performance and emissions from after-treatment devices, fuel injectors and general wear will be released in 2022.

Movin’ on up

Richard Tame

Aurora Innovation (NASDAQ: AUR) and Proterra Inc. (NASDAQ: PRTA), which each went public via SPACs last month, are making the kinds of moves expected of new companies.   

Aurora elevated Richard Tame, who leads finance, corporate strategy, real estate and workplace teams, from vice president of finance to chief financial officer. Tame formerly was head of finance at Lyft, where he led finance support for its research and development and Level 5 full-autonomy self-driving divisions. 

Tame earlier led finance teams at Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon, compiling more than two decades in public accounting before joining Aurora in October 2020.

Gareth Joyce
Karina Franco Padilla

Electric bus, battery and infrastructure manufacturer Proterra Inc. set a new year succession plan with Gareth Joyce succeeding Jack Allen as CEO. Allen, formerly chief operating officer at Navistar before joining Proterra in 2016, is retiring but he will remain on Proterra’s board as nonexecutive chairman.

Joyce came to Proterra in 2020 from Delta Air Lines, where he was chief sustainability officer and president of cargo and airport customer services. He has been president since September. Joyce will join the board while company co-founder and former CEO Ryan Popple will depart. The company also named Karina Franco Padilla’s as CFO, succeeding interim CFO A.J. Cederoth..

Best of the rest …

Hyzon Motors fuel cell trucks for hauling steel in China. (Photo: Hyzon Motors)

Xos Inc. (NASDAQ: XOS) will distribute its Class 5-8 electric trucks in the state of Georgia in partnership with Yancey Bros. Co., the nation’s oldest Caterpillar equipment dealer. … Hyzon Motors Inc. (NASDAQ: HYZN) has delivered 29 fuel cell electric trucks for hauling steel coils by a steel conglomerate in China through Shanghai Hydrogen HongYun Automotive Co. The 49-ton trucks use a 170-kilowatt fuel cell stack. … Motiv Power Systems successfully tested an electronic stability control (ESC) system on its EPIC4 electric platform for medium-duty trucks. The double lane change handling test at the independent Transportation Research Center examined the use of automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to help operators maintain control in critical or hazardous driving conditions.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech by email on Fridays.


Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.