By John Lyons-Gould
We have seen the future, Mr. President, and it looks nothing like a golf cart.
On June 11, more than 250 student engineers from 15 top North American universities began the summer with a roar when they put their fuel-cell propulsion systems, space-age materials, alternative fuels and hybrid electric design strategies to the test in FutureTruck 2002. Their mission: to re-engineer a mid-size Ford Explorer into a cleaner vehicle with at least 25 percent better fuel economy. The catch: they have to do it without sacrificing the Explorer's existing performance, utility, safety and affordability.
Early in the 11-day event came the "duel in the desert," where teams drove their modified Explorers through acceleration, off-road, trailer towing and safety events at Ford's Arizona Proving Ground, allaying any fears that these trucks were less macho than before the modifications.
"In the classroom, answers are known. Out here, we had to learn to deal with unknowns - real world situations. And it worked!" said Texas Tech Team Leader Aaron Rogahn after five months of round-the-clock 12-hour shifts by his team members payed off in a working proton-exchange membrane fuel cell engine.
Next were the all-important emissions testing and greenhouse-gas impact events hosted by the California Resources Board in El Monte and the University of California at Riverside, where trucks either met or failed California's Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle Standards. Only at the consumer acceptability events at the California Motor Speedway did judges get a chance to kick the tires and shop around for things like roomy interiors and eye-pleasing designs.
The judges awarded first place to the team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for its bio-diesel hybrid electric advanced technology system that reduced the Explorer's greenhouse gas index by 50 percent and increased fuel economy by 45 percent. Not bad. But if students can do it, then why can't the Big Three? And how do the successes at FutureTruck translate into real solutions for this nation's auto industry?
FutureTruck comes on the heels of the Senate rejection of Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that would have given the auto industry 10 years to make its cars and trucks get 35 miles per gallon. The competition began the day after the Sierra Club launched a three-year campaign to urge the Big Three automakers to apply existing technology to their fleets that would significantly boost fuel-efficiency and decrease our reliance on foreign oil (See Club to Carmakers: Fewer Seat Warmers, More Miles Per Gallon).
"We believe in investing in new technology, and hybrids are a good step," said Kate Simmons of the Sierra Club's Energy and Global Warming Campaign. "But automakers have existing technology to dramatically increase fuel efficiency in today's vehicles. It's mind-boggling that they haven't already."
Ford Motor Company, the headline sponsor for the 2002 and 2003 events, called the epic quest of FutureTruck a "search for the no-compromise vehicle." Ford donated $200,000 in seed money and prizes, competition coordination, engineering consultants and, most importantly, the vehicles to make the vision a reality.
Jon Harmon, public affairs manager for trucks and SUVs at Ford, says it's no secret that the technology exists and offers promise. "The challenge," he says, "is to integrate that technology into a vehicle without sacrificing performance, offer it to consumers at a reasonable cost, and be able to produce it on a mass scale. It's frustrating when people want new technology sooner - it's up to the company to ensure we have a reliable product."
What Ford calls the first true "no-compromise vehicle" to come on the market, its Escape hybrid SUV, will hit the showroom in late 2003. With room for five, lots of cargo space, optional 4-wheel drive and nearly 40 mpg in the city, Ford is hoping this vehicle will change the public's conception of hybrid vehicles for good.
Ford hired two new engineers for its Escape hybrid team directly from participants in the FutureTruck event.
"Brilliant ideas come from young minds, and this is just one more avenue for industry to find solutions," says FutureTruck spokesperson Kimberly Hippler.
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