For more on the last year of Challenge X, see Slideshow: 2008 Challenge X.
Four years ago, dozens of college students sat down at their workstations to design the vehicle of the future. The Challenge X competition was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and dozens of sponsors, including General Motors, which donated brand-new 2005 Chevrolet Equinoxes. The students made up 17 teams, all attempting to build a sport utility that used less petroleum and emitted fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases.
This spring, as Challenge X wound down, the same organizers launched its successor. The new multiyear contest will be called EcoCar: The NeXt Challenge, and the ecology focus in its name is just one indicator of how much has changed in the global auto industry since 2004.
For one thing, the vehicles used in Challenge X were specific to North America. The Chevrolet Equinox is a ”compact” sport utility—4.8 meters long, weighing 1762 kilograms with all-wheel drive, and fitted with a 185-horsepower (138-kilowatt), 3.4-liter V6 gasoline engine. That’s fine in a contest funded by U.S. and Canadian government entities, but it hardly reflects the industry’s wholesale shift to entirely global vehicle platforms. To amortize the huge capital costs of new vehicles, the same underpinnings are now manufactured around the world, customized for local markets.
But it’s the power technologies that really date the Challenge X entries today. Most of the 17 teams chose to fit their vehicles with 1.9-liter GM turbo diesels and hybrid-electric drives, although Canada’s University of Waterloo converted their Equinox to run on a hydrogen fuel cell, and the University of Michigan used a hydraulic hybrid to store energy. But only one of those hybrids was a plug-in that could recharge its battery pack from the electric grid—and that came from the University of California at Davis, where professor Andy Frank has been promoting plug-in technology for almost 20 years. And only a handful used lithium-ion battery packs, the cell chemistry that will make plug-in hybrids practical in the future.
For EcoCar, the goals are roughly the same. But this time, the donor vehicle is likely to be GM’s Saturn Vue sport utility, according to teams and organizers who asked not to be named because it hasn’t been announced. Not only is the Vue a global vehicle—it was designed largely in Korea and is also sold in Europe as the Opel Antara—but by 2010, it will have the unique distinction of offering no fewer than three different hybrid systems to buyers.
Chevrolet already offers the 2008 Vue Green Line with GM’s Belt-Alternator-Starter mild-hybrid system, which switches off the engine when the vehicle stops and restarts it on takeoff. Late this year, dealers will receive a 2009 version with GM’s full Two-Mode Hybrid system, which offers electric running for short distances and improved fuel economy. Finally, a plug-in version of the Vue Two-Mode was revealed at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, to go on sale in late 2010.
Thus for EcoCar, many of the 17 chosen teams (three of them Canadian) will likely add plug-in capabilities to existing hybrid versions of the Vue. The challenge will be whether teams can keep their designs ahead of those in actual production vehicles that will go on sale during EcoCar’s four-year span.