The Fourth Wave
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The Fourth Wave

High school students use math to gain insight into electric trucking for the long haul

2020 could be the big year for electric big rigs. Many truck makers are accelerating their electric truck projects toward launches this year, and Tesla has already taken orders for its futuristic, battery-powered Semi from several big fleet operators. While more infrastructure is needed to ensure the success of this new approach to trucking, electric tractor trailers are becoming an attractive option for companies to consider now, as their current fleets of diesel trucks age and become nonoperational.

Driven by regulatory pressure to cut diesel pollution, commercial truck makers are working hard to deliver battery electric vehicles. Predicting the market for electric commercial trucks within the estimated 1.7 million semi-trucks across the United States is not easy, making intelligent decisions about the necessary charging infrastructure is complex, and weighing the economic and environmental implications for the communities surrounding the trucking corridors is essential. These issues were all part of the problem 760 teams comprised of nearly 3,500 students examined while competing for $100,000 in scholarships in MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge. A program of Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), M3 Challenge is designed to motivate students to study and pursue careers in applied math, computational science, and technical computing.

During the intensive M3 Challenge weekend, teams of high school juniors and seniors across the country used mathematical expertise, research, and brainstorming to evaluate data and build a solution. The problem prompts this year asked teams to create a model to predict what percentage of semi-trucks will be electric in the next few years and decades, determine the number and locations of charging stations along major U.S. trucking routes that are needed for an all-electric trucking industry, and to prioritize which routes should be developed with electric charging infrastructure first. Teams submitted their solutions after working under the strict 14 consecutive hour time limit, akin to the way things often happen in the real world.

“I am thrilled to have been able to participate and engage in such a thought provoking problem,” says Morgan Manning, a junior at Southwest Edgecombe High School in North Carolina. “M3 Challenge gave us the opportunity to see what we might have to do in our future and what professionals do already to help better our lives.”

“Electric heavy-duty tractor-trailers come with many benefits, but implementation requires much thought and ultimately big investments in the trucks themselves and the infrastructure to charge them,” says Mike Roeth, Executive Director, North American Council for Freight Efficiency. “Our team is excited to see the models these gifted students develop that could help us move forward, allowing the industry to accelerate the adoption of these zero emission vehicles.”

As Challenge weekend ends, judges look forward to seeing the creative ways teams used data to predict and model the emerging electric trucking industry. “There are so many different aspects of electric trucking for which mathematical modeling can be leveraged to help others understand how we might, as a nation, move toward this cost-effective solution to moving goods across our highways,” says M3 Challenge judge and lead problem developer Karen Bliss, associate professor at Virginia Military Institute. “We aren’t looking for any particular type or level of math. The questions posed in M3 Challenge can be approached in a variety of ways, and often the best papers are those that are well written and use a reasonable mathematical model or models to answer the questions.”

While many students can’t help but be motivated by the chance to win scholarship money for college, many are happy to compete solely because they find it academically rewarding. “This has definitely been one of the most exciting and fun experiences I’ve had in high school,” says Juliana Phan, a senior at Oxford Academy in California participating in M3 Challenge for the second time.

After two rounds of judging by 150 professional applied mathematicians over eight weeks, six finalist teams and three technical computing awardees were selected to present their solutions to a panel of mathematical experts virtually on April 27. You can watch the winning presentations here.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave

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Environmental progress doesn't just happen. It's been propelled by successive waves of innovation, each unleashing powerful new tools: Land conservation. Force of Law. Power of Market-Based Solutions. Today we are seeing the emergence of a Fourth Wave of environmental innovation.

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