Street Smarts: The death of dead batteries?

29 March 2023

The ability of components and vehicles to send messages to a fleet manager or technician and alerting them to a potential failure seemed like the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago. But today, such technology is rapidly becoming the norm in cutting-edge fleet-maintenance programs.

Still, one vehicle system has remained maddeningly difficult to predict and manage: the humble – yet critical – automotive battery.

But that’s about to change. At CES 2023, Clarios, the largest manufacturer of automotive batteries in North America, announced a new Smart AGM (absorbed glass matt) battery with imbedded electronic sensors that monitor cell life in real time. These sensors can also alert fleets and drivers alike when a battery failure is about to occur.

Accurately gauging battery life has always been difficult. That’s because there’s never been a reliable way to determine how much life a battery has left. There are 100-amp load testers and other, similar, state-of-charge testers. But in reality, all they do is confirm the battery’s current charge level. They can’t help you understand how much useful life a battery has left. All they really do is confirm that a bad battery is, in fact, dead.

“Every 12 V automotive battery has six cells – but we’ve never been able to understand what’s going on inside those cells in real time,” said Joel Searl, vice president, products, Clarios. “But now, with our patent pending new technology, fleet managers, technicians and drivers will be able to look at and monitor cell life in real time. The system can identify weak cells that eventually drag a battery down and allows for a predictive assessment as to how many days, weeks or months that battery has left before cellular failure occurs.”

Easy interfaces

John Bania, product line leader for heavy-duty and specialty batteries at Clarios, said the Smart AGM system can be easily integrated into any fleet maintenance system, using either a web portal or dashboard. “We are working on interfaces that will work for large fleets that need to identify issues, trends or get alerts on high-risk batteries,” he said. “We’re also working on versions for smaller fleets that use portal access or other alert avenues like text alerts or emails.”

The screen displaying battery information is simple and intuitive. Two large gauges at the top display the battery’s overall voltage rating and current in amps. Below, each 2 V cell is displayed as a bar graph, with the cell’s current voltage to the right and a colored graph showing how much life is left in each cell. Healthy cells will be green, Searl said, with aging cell graphs yellow and cells in danger of failure red.

Technicians can access the system during vehicle maintenance to check battery life and replace it if a failure is predicted before the next service interval. Likewise, drivers and fleet manager alike can get real-time alerts when a battery is about to die and greatly reduce repeat visits to the shop from misdiagnosed battery replacements when an electrical issue, or a failing alternator or starter is the actual cause of the problem.

Other benefits

But the benefits of the Smart AGM technology go far beyond simply eliminating dead batteries, Searl said. “Fleets will be able to determine what kind of battery life they’re getting and why,” he said. “They will be able to identify issues that are shortening battery life, like overuse – liftgates for example, or drivers making frequent stops with electric systems running, but not enough drive time between them to recharge the battery properly. Using data from the Smart AGM battery monitoring system will allow fleets to making better spec’ing decisions that will give better performance and efficiencies from a truck’s entire electrical system.”

Jack Roberts is a Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based independent journalist and licensed commercial driver with more than 20 years’ experience covering the North American and global trucking industries.

The Clarios Smart AGM battery monitoring system is currently available for AGM type batteries only, although Searl said the company is working on a system for lead-acid type batteries as well. Smart AGM is currently undergoing testing, with fleet trials scheduled for this summer. Searl predicts the system will be available in limited production runs later this year, with full availability coming sometime in mid-2024.

Working in a hellish place

The inside of an automotive battery is a hellish place, Joel Searl explained. Positive and negative plates are awash in highly corrosive sulfuric acid. And developing electronic sensors that could survive in that environment without being eaten up was difficult to do. “What we’ve done is create connection points inside the battery,” Searl said. “And over time, we refined that process to the point that we could produce tight enough tolerances that allowed the sensors to survive, collect and transmit data.

“And that wasn’t easy to do inside a truck battery dealing with vibration, alternating hot, cold, humid and dry conditions. But we were able to do that by leveraging Clarios aerial lithium-ion battery technologies. So, we are essentially bringing aircraft level technologies into trucking with this system.”

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