In 2004, design engineer Norman Grant approached a colleague, Andre Reyneke, about making vehicles more efficient through hydraulic technology. The two mulled it over and decided that that was the direction the transport world should be moving; zeroing in on such technology would be a good business prospect.

“There was not enough focus on the hydraulic side [in the transport sector],” says Reyneke. “There was too much focus on the electric side, and we saw an opportunity.”

Reyneke and Grant founded Ducere Holdings, a green energy startup based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The startup recently introduced its first product: a hydraulic-hybrid transmission technology with regenerative breaking capabilities and engine optimization. The system can reduce large trucking vehicles’ carbon emissions and fuel consumption, while improving performance and supporting cost savings.

But as time went by, the pair realized there was a bigger opportunity for their technology than just building a profitable business around it. “It was also about life and the climate and the effect all of us are having on the world,” says Reyneke, who serves as Ducere’s CEO.

Worldwide, more than 300 million commercial vehicles transport food, goods and other essential products. With such a large fleet constantly in motion, it is no wonder that the trucking industry has a significant environmental impact. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, transportation is the single largest source of air pollution—which includes greenhouse gasses—in the United States. Air pollution not only contributes to global warming, but it is also linked to health issues, like respiratory disease.

With growing global consumer spending, however, demand for delivery of goods is unlikely to reduce the number trucks on the road anytime soon. Instead, one option for minimizing trucks’ environmental footprint is making vehicles more eco-friendly.

MISER is a hybrid hydraulic and mechanical system designed to recover kinetic energy. The system can be retrofitted onto any vehicle.

Ducere Holding’s transmission technology, dubbed MISER, aims to do that, while also making vehicles operate more efficiently. The system is an add-on technology, working with vehicles’ existing transmission systems to store and reuse kinetic energy from breaking. Overall, it aims make a vehicle’s whole propulsion system more efficient, in terms of power delivery as well as fuel consumption, and significantly reduce emissions. Reyneke says MISER can enable up to 44 percent fuel savings and 40 percent emissions reduction, in optimal conditions.

How does it work?

The MISER transmission is a hybrid hydraulic/mechanical system that captures heat typically lost from breaking as a source of energy to power the vehicle. When a truck breaks with a MISER system in place, hydraulic fluid moves into an accumulator, which contains a high-pressure balloon. The fluid puts the balloon under pressure, creating stored energy. When a driver needs extra power, for acceleration or climbing a hill, for example, MISER is then able to choose the most efficient form of energy available. When it taps into the energy stored in the accelerator, the stored energy is transferred to the pump, which takes over as the truck’s motor, powering the shaft that turns the trucks’ wheels.

Réhann Coetzee of mcrCOMMUNICATE, a communications company that works with Ducere, likens the MISER technology to that of a steam train: when water is heated, it changes into high-pressure steam, which when released, turns the wheels of the train. In the MISER system, however, the propellant used isn’t steam but corn-based oil, which “is what is typically used in hydraulic mechanisms,” Coetzee explains.

Ducere’s first product, the MISER-HKS, can be retrofitted onto any commercial vehicle by installing the system behind a truck’s gearbox, underneath the cab. The power runs from the gearbox, which is fixed to the engine, to the rear axle via a propeller shaft.

Once installed, MISER enables three vehicle control settings: using the internal combustion engine; using just the hydraulics—meaning not using the engine at all; or using a combination of the two. MISERs control system chooses what mode to use based on the availability of stored energy and the driving conditions. Coetzee says this drive mode management system is the “magic” of MISER.

“[It’s] basically a computer that measures what the [vehicle] load is and what power the truck needs,” Coetzee explains. “For instance, in high load conditions, such as when a truck is pulling away, that’s when it works the hardest. [MISER] would use both the engine and the hydraulic unit.”

Others are more impressed by the positive environmental impact MISER can have by optimizing a vehicle’s energy and fuel efficiency.

How the MISER-HKS captures and optimizes energy for fuel savings

“Technologies which can make large scale ecological impact within the traditional economy are extremely rare,” says Tanner Methvin, a partner at Impact Amplifier, an investment advisory firm that has been supporting Ducere. Most tech-backed environmental impact comes from new technologies, Methvin adds. “Creating an adaptive technology in the automotive sector, which can deliver 25 to 40 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction while also reducing fuel consumption to the same degree is nothing short of revolutionary.”

Getting to market

Ducere has three different MISER systems in various stages of development. The one farthest along the product development pathway is the MISER-HKS, which can be retrofitted onto heavy-duty vehicles, such as refuse removal trucks. This early system is built for installation “after market,” where the Ducere team buys the propulsion unit and hydraulic motor from manufacturers and configures it on behalf of fleet owners and operators. Ducere began commercializing the system earlier this year. The company has at least a half dozen commercial pilots underway.

Ducere is also developing another system, the MISER-HTS, for original equipment manufacturers (OEM). This system would completely replace a vehicle’s gearbox, the power takeoff unit, and the hydraulic pump and motor. It would be built into a vehicle on the manufacturing floor.

“It would be a single unit. You could still retrofit it, but our hope is that it would be adopted by manufacturers,” Reyneke says, acknowledging that the technology could still be a number of years away from significant adoption.

The reason that Ducere has to think about systems for these two different markets is that “manufacturers are wary of adding anything onto their propulsion systems,” Coetzee explains. That’s to be expected, he adds. “You [don’t really want to let] people to fiddle around with a system that you’ve been developing for 10 or 12 years, or 20 years, and have been selling quite successfully.”

“But,” he continues, “they need to understand that putting a MISER unit into a truck actually puts less strain on the drivetrain.”

Ducere has been taking a steady and measured approach to market entry. For its MISER-HKS systems, the company’s commercial pilot clients typically use two units for testing. After that, Ducere has an entry point for selling units to cover a client’s full fleet of vehicles. Ducere aims to sell more than 1,000 of these units in 2019.

The MISER-HKS retails for about 350,000 South African rand (US$24,000 at the current exchange rate). In the international markets Ducere is targeting, like the U.S. and U.K., the units will be priced around $20,000 to $25,000.

For the fleet operators who buy the systems, the Ducere team estimates a return on investment of somewhere between nine and 18 months. Exact timelines depend, of course, on the type of vehicle and its typical driving conditions. In the U.S., Reyneke estimates a driver averages 191,000 kilometers per year for a long haul, heavy-duty truck. In South Africa, the average is about 150,000 kilometers. The estimated fuel savings, which range between 25 and 43 percent, depend on factors like whether the truck is being driven primarily in cities, with a lot of breaking and acceleration, or highways.

Competitive landscape

According to Methvin, MISER’s main competitors are power management company Eaton and motion and control technology corporation Parker Hannifin. Lightening Systems is also trying to improve fleet efficiency through hybrid hydraulic technology. The challenge across this group of companies is delivering significant enough returns on investment to motivate large-scale adaption.

“Industry standards for trucking enhancements generally require a three-year payback,” Methvin says. Where Ducere has an advantage is that the company is targeting older trucks that are beyond their warranty periods. “[MISER] is priced to ensure an 18-month payoff period.”

Longer-term, of course, electric vehicles could give technologies like the MISER-HKS a run for their money. “But I don’t think it’s relevant at the moment, because you cannot just scale an electric solution the way you can scale a hydraulic solution,” Reyneke says. Electric vehicle technology is evolving rapidly, but “there are just too many limitations at the moment with [electric] technology,” he adds.

Long-term, electric vehicles could give technologies like the MISER-HKS a run for their money. Short-term, there are few competitors to Ducere's technology on the market.

Impact Amplifier is working with Ducere’s team to develop potential revenue models for the business. One is a rental model. Another is a shared fuel-savings model, wherein Ducere would install its equipment in a truck, and then generate earnings from customers based on the fuel savings created.

“This allows Ducere to create long-term, consistent income from every installation they make,” Methvin says.

Bumps in the road

The first MISER prototype was completed several years ago, however Ducere only completed its commercial pilot unit last year, because it had to go through independent testing and verification. Gerotek Testing Facility, a South African organization that performs these evaluations, tested the system’s performance, verifying MISER’s energy and emissions results.

“So, when I talk about a 40 percent saving or [rather] 43.8 percent saving, that’s something that was independently verified by them. It’s not a Ducere or a MISER statement,” Reyneke clarifies. Once the results were out, the team could authoritatively speak to customers about their technology’s capabilities and potential.

The journey to that point wasn’t always smooth sailing, however. As with all new technologies, there were hiccups and setbacks along the development pathway. Grant recalls one instance when Ducere’s team installed an early MISER model in a client’s truck in Johannesburg.

“The first time the vehicle ran, it came to a roaring halt and then went roaring backwards,” he says. “This didn’t come up in the simulation work that was done at all.”

Ducere’s team had not factored in system variance during idling, so when the truck stopped, the pump immediately changed and started moving the vehicle backwards. Everyone standing around began shouting, Reyneke adds. “It was quite funny if you were standing outside, but I think the guys in the truck were a bit nervous.”

The early MISER-HKS design also required modifications to the control system. Ducere had run industry-standard simulations and developed control algorithms in Matlab. But transferring the system to real world environments came with issues such as fixed time steps, limited computing power in the controller, “and a major issue in getting valid vehicle data to use in the control algorithm,” Grant says. “Even once the system worked, [we] found that every corner of the performance envelope required some special code.”

Now, with those early modifications and field trials behind them, Ducere’s team is turning its attention to testing and verifying the MISER-HKS in the U.K, where the market expectations and requirements are slightly different than in South Africa.

“We’re an unknown entity, and we come in here making huge claims, which we can obviously back, but it’s still going to be a challenge to get potential customers to understand and believe in the technology.”

The company is also gearing up for field trials for its HTS unit in South Africa next year. The team is especially excited about these, because simulations have shows that in certain drive cycles, the unit can achieve up to 70 percent fuel savings and a 65 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. If such numbers could be realized in the field, it would set Ducere’s system head and shoulders above any other technology in the market, Reyneke says.

Ducere is also in the experimental stages of a system for small passenger vehicles. This system would replace a car’s engine with a single unit combining three different power sources: a small internal combustion engine, a small electric motor, and a small hydraulic element.

“The idea is that if you’re in a cosmopolitan area, you can drive without burning any fuel—with zero emissions,” Reyneke explains. For longer drives of say 500 or 1,000 kilometers, one could make the trip without having to charge the vehicle’s battery at all, because the vehicle can draw from three energy sources.

Reyneke is quick to note that this system wouldn’t compete with electric vehicles; rather, it would complement them.

The road ahead

Similar to other new technologies and products, the team behind MISER knows that the road ahead will come with a unique set of challenges. Even in terms of where the technology currently stands, Ducere’s founders believe they could have achieved their goal of having a product on the market four to six years earlier had they been able to secure funding sooner.

“We started funding the business ourselves, and from there we had some angel investors, and some grants from our government here,” Reyneke explains.

Early funding is a challenge for all new businesses, but particularly for resource-intense hardware companies like Ducere. Methvin’s team, who met Ducere’s team at an investment readiness training Impact Amplifier hosted, has been helping the startup overcome its funding obstacles. They helped Ducere successfully apply for a grant from South Africa’s Green Fund, an 800-million-rand fund launched by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs to propel the country’s transition to a green economy. Impact Amplifier also helped launch a fundraising effort to support Ducere’s commercial expansion and development of alternative income streams. Then, last year, Ducere took on a big financial partner. “We sold off part of the company and we are now fine in terms of funding,” Reyneke says.

The company’s biggest challenge now is getting potential customers to understand and believe in their technology. “We’re an unknown entity, and we come in making huge claims, which we can obviously back, but still, that is going to be by far the biggest challenge,” notes Reyneke.

Ironically, this challenge is further complicated by the simplicity of the MISER system. “This question is repeated: ‘Why has no one done this before? It looks too simple’,” Grant says.

As they expand, Ducere will need to find partners that are aligned to their mission in other countries. The team already has an employee based in the U.K. and is beginning to explore how to build a presence in the U.S. as well.

“Most countries have different legal requirements for such systems,” Grant says. For example, one issue is that software and hardware certifications for the accumulators and controllers differ in South Africa, Europe and the U.S. “Although it is not a technical problem, it is an issue,” he adds.

Potential customers’ motivations for adopting Ducere’s technology differ widely by geography as well. “In South Africa, the main driver is definitely cost. It’s promising that corporates are starting to think about their [environmental impact], but we’re not as green as we should be,” Reyneke says. “In the U.K., it’s a mix of the two. People feel they should contribute to a better climate, but cost is also a factor.”

Effectively navigating these challenges may be a barrier to scalability right now, but Ducere’s team sees them as short-term barriers. Grant and Reyneke describe the MISER system as almost “infinitely scalable” because it can be installed on any vehicle that uses an internal combustion engine, whether that is a motorcycle, truck or an ocean liner. And that’s not counting the market potential of the new systems Ducere is developing.

To see such versatile and scalable technology succeed could yield an enormous impact on not just the automotive industry but also on the planet. Methvin says that what excites him most is that such a technology could emerge from Africa. “We firmly believe in the power and potential of Africa,” he says.

Reyneke brings Ducere’s journey so far back to a personal level: the impetus behind MISER’s development started as a business undertaking. But these days, he has two reasons for driving it forward: “It is business, and we’d like to make a difference in the world.”