Why not "RightNow Truck" ?
By Katie Hartley*


Ford Motor Company and the Department of Energy hosted what might be the last of the three-year FutureTruck competitions in Romeo, Michigan. FutureTruck challenges engineering students from 15 universities to revamp 2002 Ford Explorers, turning them into environmentally conscious SUVs-if you can imagine such a thing. The objectives: attain 25 percent fuel economy, reduce overall emissions, and-for the truck enthusiasts-maintain or improve upon the sport utility nature of the automobile. The eight days of testing June 9 -17, focused on acceleration, towing, greenhouse gas emissions, fuel economy and off-road performance. The results were nothing short of admirable, innovative and humorous.

I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer capacity of these students with their forward-thinking row of multi-colored machines, all of which had been slapped with logos from sponsors. It was like an environmental conference meets SUV NASCAR. The technology present in these vehicles included series and parallel hybrids, hydraulic battery packs, various alternative fuels and numerous innovative lightweight materials. I started smiling though as soon as the engines started and I could barely hear over the knocking and the hums that came from some of the nearby engines, nor could I ignore the foreign odors exuding from underneath the cars.

My first ride was in the University of Tennessee's "Evolution" (2) (photo below), which is a heavy hybrid that runs on 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol. This was one of the smellier ones, but John Miller, Team Tennessee's leader and designated driver, assured me that any apparent odd noises or smells would not exist in the finished version. This innovative prototype runs in two different modes. The first is the full-hybrid mode where the engine charges the battery. Then, when the car comes to a stop, the engine quits and the car restarts using the electric motor. This is the zero-emission mode, which is ideal for sitting in traffic or waiting at stoplights where passengers can entertain themselves with the numerous features including voice-activated A/C, internet access, rear view cameras, and, of course, a DVD player.

My next trip around Ford's Proving Grounds was in Texas Tech's Explorer (2). This one, because it is a two-wheel drive and operates on a 4-cylinder engine, as team leader Andrew Leslie says, "is made for the soccer-mom who wants an SUV." We know the type. This team's car is a post transmission parallel hybrid and was one of two hydrogen-run vehicles that participated in the event. Hydrogen, while it is a renewable energy source, does not seem to be the most practical. Leslie asserts, "The biggest problems facing [hydrogen vehicles] is the infrastructure and fuel storage." The fuel storage problem was pretty apparent considering that the far back seats had been replaced with a giant fuel cell.

The winner of this year's FutureTruck Competition was the University of Wisconsin, Madison (2). This team did not just meet the objectives-they completely surpassed them. This parallel hybrid-which uses a compression-ignition with an advanced catalyst system-experiences an amazing 50 percent reduction in emissions and a 33 percent increase in on-road fuel economy over a standard 2002 Explorer.
While other competing vehicles were not able to achieve such high fuel economy and low emission levels, there were many that modeled notable innovations. Ohio State University covered their Explorer's seats with Ultra Leather made from 100 percent recycled plastic soda bottles, which actually made the seats noticeably softer and supposedly more durable than real leather. Georgia Institute of Technology came in third place with a design that, as Ford states, "would allow the hybrid-electric powertrain to be a factory option." This split-parallel hybrid was designed with an AC induction electric motor to drive the front wheels and a six-cylinder engine that powers the rear wheels.

On the sidelines, there were three hybrid "donor" cars of various Ford models that were present in case the competing trucks needed spare parts. Some cars did sound like they were missing a part or two. In the end, though, these SUVs fared well and remained intact, which reflects the toil involved in these three-year projects. Miller, of Team Tennessee, says that "the implementation of the hardware into an already in-production vehicle was definitely the biggest challenge." Not only were they working with new technology, but they were also given real industrial and consumer constraints and demands-providing realistic experience for their future automotive endeavors.

Overall, this was definitely an entertaining and exciting experience. The engineers were excited, the sponsors were excited, the media were excited. But when the DOE's representative, Ed Wall, and Ford's Public Affairs representative, Michael Vaughn were asked when the public would start to see some of this technology in Ford's products or in mass production, the excitement seemed to fade. We were told that things were not that simple. Ford does utilize some of this greener technology, but as Vaughn states, "the infrastructure and the economy aren't designed for it yet." I felt like a child who had just learned the truth about Santa Claus.

Is the mass production of greener cars an unrealistic fantasy? We are facing continuous global warming-the biggest environmental problem in history. When is there a better time for us to be able to incorporate this technology into everyday traffic? Competitions like FutureTruck are important in that they bring together government, industry and the academic realm in a quest to find innovative technology that is less harmful to our environment, but we need to start infiltrating these ideas into our infrastructure soon.

To the students and the car companies: keep searching for greener technology. To our existing infrastructure and economy: it is time to change.

(*Katie Hartley interns at E magazine and will attend the University of Montana. Photos David Freers.)