It's All About U

The keys to the future of personal mobility, Ford believes, can be found in its Model U concept SUV. Brimming with safety and electronic technologies, the vehicle also makes an attempt to chart a course toward the everyday use of hydrogen as a fuel, and the creation of materials and processes that lessen the automobile's environmental impact.

“If Henry Ford was to look at a modern-day vehicle,” says Laurens van den Acker, chief designer, Ford Advanced Design, “the only thing that truly would surprise him would be the electronics.” Van den Acker is the designer of the Model U, a research concept vehicle created to showcase near-term and long-term technologies, including the first steps toward the creation and use of sustainable materials in automotive manufacture. It encompasses a hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine supplemented by a hybrid-electric drive system, a voice activation system utilizing conversational speech instead of set commands, active safety equipment, and slots that turn the vehicle interior into a giant plug-and-play port. It’s an intriguing view of the future.

The Model U’s soft roof panel employs a fabric from Miliken Automotive built around Poly-lactic Acid (PLA),a corn-based feedstock. The same basic material also is used for theseats, carpet, instrument panel, door trim and arm rests. Says Ravi Vijayaraghavan, technical specialist, Ford Scientific Research Laboratory, “When you start with a corn-based fabric like this, the ultimate goal is to be able to compost it at the end of its life in order to grow new crops for more material.” But won’t the materials degrade in use? “You need certain conditions for composting,” says Vijayaraghavan, “including the addition of microbes, high temperature and humidity.” Spilling a juice box on a hot day won’t start the process.

The same thinking went into the thermoset exterior panels which–like the seating foam–use polyester resins partially derived from soy beans. The panels are covered in a UV-cure paint developed by Akzo Nobel designed to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the size of the paint shop, and the amount of energy needed to dry the finish.

Other materials of note are the Goodyear tires–related to those used on some models of the European Ford Fiesta–that use corn starch in place of carbon-black filler, and the 5W-20 engine oil supplied by Penzoil with a sunflower oil base. Yet the Model U isn’t a refugee from a cooking show, or the vehicle of choice for folks stranded on a desert isle. It is a drivable concept, one actually based on the Focus platform.

“The internal combustion engine works today, the customer benefits are there, and they are recognizable,” says Gerhard Schmidt, Ford’s vice president, Research and Advanced Engineering. “And with the shift to hydrogen fuel, it could come down to a race between a hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine [H2 ICE in Ford-speak] and the fuel cell, with the former acting as a bridging technology for many years.” That is why, when you open the hood of the Model U, you will find a rather non-descript internal combustion engine staring back at you. Only this engine has a little something up its sleeve.

The Model U’s 2.3-liter Duratec HE four-cylinder has been upgraded with high-compression pistons, a redesigned intake manifold, two intercoolers (one air-to-air unit behind the front fascia and a second air-to-air conditioning piece in the engine compartment), a Vortech centrifugal supercharger, dual fuel rails, hydrogen-tolerant fuel injectors, and an Aston Martin V12-sourced coil-on-plug ignition system. “The engine is running a 12.2:1 compression ratio,” says Bob Natkin, senior technical specialist, Advanced Spark Ignited Engine Powertrain and Vehicle Research Lab, “and produces 88 kW.” Similar engines without the supercharger produced 35% less low-end torque and 50% less top-end power than their gasoline-fueled cousins, a performance Natkin stresses was “unacceptable.”

As the engine is further developed, Natkin says boost will rise from its current 13 psi level to nearly 16 psi, and the supercharger will be replaced by an electronically controlled turbocharger. Moving the 30 pounds of air per minute through the supercharger eats up 30 hp, with mechanical losses from the crank-driven device adding another 10%. Granted, a turbocharger has some uncoupled friction to overcome, but it uses waste exhaust energy to provide boost; an important consideration in a clean, high efficiency engine.

“The dual fuel rails act like primaries and secondaries on an old four-barrel carburetor,” says Natkin, “with the ability to get super high flow by kicking the low-flow rails back in if necessary.” Because there’s no carbon in the fuel, the hydrocarbon and CO emissions are below the strictest regulations, while CO2 emissions–which aren’t regulated–are at 1.5 grams/mile, well below the 350 gram/mile produced by the average car. The only remaining emission is NOx, and since the Model U runs a lean fuel calibration, engine-out NOx levels are already 50% to 75% lower than for a gasoline engine. Work with EGR and catalysts should allow Model U to comfortably undercut SULEV emission levels.

Hidden away is an electric motor capable of peak continuous operation between 10 kW and 35 kW, making the Model U the world’s first hydrogen-hybrid electric vehicle. “The powertrain is flexible and scalable,” says Dr. Arun Jaura, project leader, Hybrid Vehicle Development, “and uses an electric motor instead of a hydraulic torque converter in the automatic transmission.” An auxiliary pump in the transmission case helps in engaging and disengaging the clutch. “We can apply power to the wheels via the engine, or disconnect it and launch using the transmission and electric motor,” says Jaura. The electric motor, which stores excess electric power in a fan-cooled lithium-ion battery, also is used to start the H2 ICE engine, spinning it to 1,200 rpm in 300 milliseconds. The fuel is stored in 10,000 psi tanks located under the raised front and rear seats, with a total capacity of 7 kg of hydrogen. (A kilogram of hydrogen has an energy output equal to one gallon of gasoline. Based on its projected 300-mile range, the Model U gets the equivalent of 43 mpg.)

“The Model U is a packaging miracle,” says designer van den Acker, “but one of the reasons that it works is that it has a fairly high seating position, and little tumblehome. That produces a feeling of space.” The seats are fixed, the pedals and steering wheel adjust to fit, and the greater height of the Focus-based concept also added enough space to the engine compartment to simplify packaging the hybrid powertrain.

Inside, the dominating theme is slots. Not the Las Vegas kind, but stem-to-stern units along the floor and instrument panel that act as the automotive equivalent of a computer’s USB port. “I’ve always felt we had to look at an interior in terms of hardware and software,” says van den Acker, “with the hardware in this case represented by the slots, and the software by all of the accessories you can plug into them.” These power slots are supported by the on-board Bluetooth and 802.11b “Wi-Fi” communications protocols, making the Model U capable of downloading information from PDAs, cell phones, and other electronics, while allowing consumers to have up-to-date electronics in their vehicle. (For background on this concept, see “A Slice of Pi,” AD&P, June 2002.) This greatly enhances flexibility, and lets the consumer swap-out electronic systems as his needs and budget change. But the flexibility doesn’t stop there.

By using the same speech recognition technology Visteon supplies to Jaguar and expanding its capabilities, Ford was able to endow the Model U with the ability to recognize non-specific commands, and ask questions when the response given is ambiguous. “Entering a destination into the navigation system is as simple as telling the car to take you to a specific address, or saying something like ‘Set a course for Dave’s house,’” says Bryan Goodman, technical specialist, Ford Research Lab. “If you have more than one Dave in your address book,” he says, “it will ask you which Dave.” And while this conjures images of Captain Kirk, the system eliminates the need to memorize specific commands, and lets the driver control vehicle functions without having to take his eyes from the road to turn a knob or flip a switch.

Safety is a central theme for the Model U, not surprising since the project started as a safety technology showcase (codename: SRV 2003) before expanding to include the hydrogen-hybrid powertrain and sustainable materials technologies. This is fine with Gary Strumolo, senior staff technical specialist, Accident Avoidance Research, who states: “While we’re saving the environment with corn-based materials, and phone numbers with voice recognition, we have to remember that the most important thing we have to save are the passengers.”

The Model U is fitted with adaptable front lights. These adjust the beam one pixel at a time, and can use GPS data and digital maps to assess exactly where the vehicle is, and the current conditions in order to project light exactly where it’s needed. Active night vision system uses a laser to illuminate the surroundings such that a camera calibrated to the reflected light level (invisible to the naked eye) can capture the image and display it on a screen. “The laser’s reach goes far beyond that of high beams,” says Strumolo, “and creates an image that looks very natural.” In future iterations it will be combined with a technology that can see through dense fog so, as Strumolo puts it, “you won’t end up as the 51st car in a 50-car pile-up.”

Now that seemingly everyone has a light truck, which negates the ability to look beyond the vehicle in front of you, Ford has developed a patented system it calls “Traffic View.” Cameras mounted in the side mirrors focus around the sides of the vehicles ahead, and display their composite image on a screen mounted in one of the interior power slots. “This is helpful in traffic,” says Strumolo, “but has perhaps its greatest impact in left-turn situations against on-coming traffic.” And because the cameras produce a stereo image, the system can represent distance as well as speed, thus enhancing the driver’s vision.

In many ways, the Model U is Ford’s vision for the automobile’s second hundred years, much as the Model T was its vision for the first hundred, though there’s no telling if or when the showcased technologies will appear in production. And that, says Gerhard Schmidt, is the way it should be. “With the Model U we are looking at what form mobility might take by addressing some of the problems that might deny this freedom to future generations. I’ll admit, it’s not the complete answer, but it is a step along the way.”