The Colleges of Hard Knocks

Behind the environmental hype and "changing the world" rhetoric, the 2002 FutureTruck competition had a real purpose: giving engineering students the opportunity to shepherd a project from start to finish, and live or die on the decisions made along the way.

Under a scorching sun at the California Motor Speedway in Fontana this past June, competitors in the 2002 FutureTruck competition ran through the last stage of this year's contest. Billeted in the capacious garages usually occupied by top-flight race teams, the competitors–engineering students from 15 universities across the U.S. and Canada–presented their vehicles for the last aspect of what had been a 10-day slog through Arizona and California. At Ford's Desert Proving Grounds in Yucca, AZ, the students ran their modified 2002 Explorers on-road and off, measured fuel economy, acceleration and trailer towing capabilities, and presented their creations for emissions testing and greenhouse gas impact. At the California Motor Speedway in Ontario, CA, they lined up for design inspection, consumer acceptability and vehicle appearance judging.

Back Story
Between November 2001 and January 2002, the teams took delivery of nearly identical–only the colors were different–Explorers and $10,000 in seed money from Ford. The goals the teams were asked to reach, however, kept this largesse from being turned into supplies for a great frat party. They were: a minimum 25% improvement in on-road fuel economy; reduced greenhouse gas emissions; meeting federal Tier 0 emission standards while trying to achieve California's Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) standards; beating a 1/8-mile acceleration time of 15 seconds (the stock V6 Explorer does it in 12 sec.); demonstrating a towing capacity of 2,000 lb.; maintaining seating for at least five adults; and retaining all vehicle functions including air conditioning and power accessories. Quick economy hits like replacing the automatic transmission with a manual gearbox brought an automatic markdown due to reduced consumer acceptability.

"The schools had to submit proposals in order to be chosen for the competition," says Bob Larsen, director of Automotive Research at the Argonne National Laboratory, "and the competitors are encouraged to look at alternative fuels, materials, and propulsion systems." As a result, hybrid electric propulsion was the drive system of choice, but achieved by means of vastly different design strategies. For example, eight teams ran their internal combustion engines on ethanol, three used bio-diesel, another used ultra-low sulfur diesel, and still another reformulated gasoline. The two remaining schools shot the moon and selected hydrogen fuel cell power. Ford engineer Steve Burke, himself a former participant with the University of West Virginia's FutureTruck team, says the concentration on hybrid electric drive has its reasons. "You are able to add power when needed through the electric motor, without having to have the all-wheel-drive engaged full time, and while using an engine that's often much smaller than the standard powerplant." And it doesn't hurt that–like it was for Burke–the competition is a great entrée into the engineering department of an OEM. Burke is working on Ford's 2004 hybrid-electric Escape.

A walk through the paddock, and a few quick drives of some of the vehicles in the competition proved that hybrid electric drive conversions aren't easy or quick to develop, the FutureTruck competition attracts high achievers, and these kids can exist on very little sleep. It also showed a willingness to attempt the seemingly impossible, or to try solutions that are a bit…different. But rather than take you through a boring dissertation on the competition, let's meet a few of the more colorful teams.


Georgia Institute of Technology

"We spent most of the Fall 2001 term planning what we were going to do," says team leader Jason Parsons, "because we knew from experience that there wouldn't be enough time to assess the needs and produce a modified vehicle after we had taken delivery." Georgia Tech's team–a group of nearly 20 students–spent much of its planning time designing a new drive system. After settling on a split-parallel configuration to improve packaging, the team chose a 150-kW electric motor to drive the front wheels and provide a majority of the acceleration torque. In addition, the 4.0-liter V6 was replaced by a Lincoln LS 3.0-liter V6, which produces 200 hp on reformulated gasoline, drives the rear wheels, and supplies cruising torque and a charge for the Panasonic lead-acid battery pack.

"Most of the components are located between the frame rails," says Parsons, "so even though we added 580 lb. to the vehicle and raised it slightly farther off the ground, the center of gravity of our truck is lower than the stock version's." Custom engine mounts were fabricated for the smaller engine, and its oil pan modified. "Just from swapping the 4.0-liter engine with a smaller unit, we saw an improvement in fuel economy (from a stock 15.7 mpg to 16.3 mpg) and emissions levels." But not enough, unfortunately, to grab a trophy.


University of Idaho

Here's a team that threw convention out the window in exchange for convection from on top of the truck. As explained by team spokesman Mike Briggs, replacing the radiator under the hood with a unit mounted to the roof had a number of benefits. "The heat load is removed from the engine compartment, which reduces the amount of heat radiated into the passenger compartment, and the load that the air conditioner must handle," he says. "That also means we could downsize the water pump because we used thermosiphoning to move hot coolant to the roof, and back to the engine." Ironic, isn't it, that a bunch of engineering students from Idaho resurrected a cooling technology commonly used by Ford when its founder was in charge, although Old Henry left the radiator in a more conventional location.

Endplates on either side of the radiator give the University of Idaho entry a very unique look, and thermostatically controlled fans mounted to the back of the radiator grid pull cooling air across the radiators at speeds up to 15 mph. "Above that speed," says Briggs, "there's enough air flow to cool without resorting to the fans." However, bystanders might want to keep clear of the line pumping coolant to the radiator grid. It gets extremely hot. The return line, however, remained cool to the touch at all times. In case of a cooling emergency–like air in the cooling system–the team could switch on a backup electric water pump.

A soft-parallel hybrid–one with a 21-kW electric motor mounted ahead of the transmission–the University of Idaho design uses the electric motor to provide assistance under acceleration. The 4.0-liter V6 runs on E85 fuel (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline), and the combined powerplants produce 247 hp. Keeping weight gain to a minimum, reliability high, and installation easy were important to the team, and the reason for their choice of propulsion system. Their truck weighed 4,830 lb., including the 348-lb. battery pack.


Texas Tech

In the list of this team's goals are these words of prominence: "…the Texas Tech FutureTruck team keeps its focus on craftsmanship and teamwork." It's very obvious the 17-member crew took the craftsmanship part of their goal seriously. Its scratch-built powertrain uses a Panasonic nickel-metal hydride battery pack (capacity 3.2 kW/hr, 274 volts), two 75-kW (peak) Solectria AC induction motors (one per axle), and a Honeywell 80-kW (peak) polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell fed by compressed hydrogen. Only their entry didn't look scratch-built. It looked like it rolled out of a top-drawer prototype shop, with everything neatly and professionally installed. (Virginia Tech was the only other team to build a fuel cell hybrid powertrain.)

The real-time drive control system resides in the left rear wheel well behind the standard trim panel, where it receives information about the pressure of the hydrogen in the twin Quantum pressurized storage tanks, as well as the air temperature and pressure. In addition, the torque at each axle is measured, with both drive motors engaged to give four-wheel-drive on demand. A 273-volt Panasonic battery pack located in front of the rear seat is used to store energy and provide a backup power system for the vehicle accessories, but little foot room.

The Texas Tech entry didn't run long or far during its time at California Motor Speedway, but–when it did–it sounded like a large vacuum cleaner trolling the parking area for errant specks of dirt. Gremlins in the hybrid drive unit kept the team from demonstrating what happens when their Explorer unleashes the 42-kW available at each axle, though there's little doubt it couldn't be much louder when doing so. Nor could it demonstrate the 60 mpg to 70 mpg equivalent mileage the team claimed for it. But it was an interesting exercise, nevertheless.


University of Alberta

The statement was notable for its euphemistic tone and complete lack of emotion: "We had a ‘thermal event'," says Amy Laidlaw, a member of the University of Alberta's FutureTruck team and project leader on its Formula SAE team. "After the competition at Ford's proving grounds, we were checking the engine's timing–looking for top dead center–with the valve covers off when the fuel mist ignited." That had to be fun. Yet it wasn't the team's greatest concern. "Unfortunately," continues Laidlaw, "the fire extinguisher powder was abrasive, so we had to tear the engine down and rebuild it before we could leave for California."

Other competitors offered to help–a few stayed behind while their teams traveled to the speedway–and the group went to work. They tore out the drivetrain, cleaned and fixed the items that needed to be, and put it all back together again. What's missing here is the simple fact that the University of Alberta's entry also was trying out some new technologies. "We're the first team to run lithium-ion batteries, and the first to run ultra-capacitors," says Laidlaw. And this was the school's first time in the competition.

The Explorer's standard 4.0-liter V6 and five-speed automatic transmission were ripped out, and replaced by a 135-hp, E85-fueled 2.0-liter Ford Zetec four cylinder mated to a GM 4L60E automatic gearbox. The engine and regenerative 60-kW (peak) electric drive unit drive through the GM transmission, and are separated by an over-running sprag clutch. This allows both power units to transfer power, making it possible to drive partially on the gasoline engine and partially on the electric motor. The sprag clutch, in turn, allows the electric motor to overrun the engine when its power is not being utilized. Surprisingly, this didn't add much weight. The battery packs weighs 145 lb., the ultra-capacitors another 73 lb., and the total weight of Alberta's vehicle is 4,800 lb.

Beyond the hype and hoo-ha that inevitably follows a competition with environmental overtones, real work and experience was taking place. Speaking not just for her team, but for all of the contestants, the University of Alberta's Amy Laidlaw admitted that grade point averages drop during the project, "but you have to balance that against the great real-world experience gained where you can apply what you learned in class to actual problems." And isn't that what engineering is all about?