The Ford Explorer eases to a stop, the dying rumble of its engine replaced by the whirring of its electric motor, now acting as a generator. Energy that would otherwise waft from the brake pads as heat trickles instead to a battery pack, then pours right back out again a few seconds later when Nick Woulf, an electrical engineering student from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, stomps on the accelerator pedal.
A satisfied-looking grin appears on his face as he hears the groaning hum of both the motor and engine engaging, combining their efforts to accelerate us down the road. The truck does not accelerate as well as Ford's standard Explorer; it makes more noise and it needs more care. Then again, it is a student project. If it ”is not done well,” as Dr. Samuel Johnson said famously of a dog's walking on its hind legs, it is a wonder ”to find it done at all.”
It's a gorgeous late spring afternoon at Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Proving Ground, in Romeo, where some 200 students on 15 university teams have gathered for the final tests in the annual FutureTruck competition. For the past school year, contestants have been leading a double life: mild-mannered engineering students by day, high-tech hot rodders by night. Fueled by who knows how many pizzas and liters of cola, each team has reengineered and rebuilt a brand-new, Ford-supplied, 2002 model-year Explorer SUV to boost fuel efficiency and minimize environmental impact.
Now, in this two-week climactic jamboree, judges meted out points for handling, towing power, off-road performance in sand pits and on steep grades, road clearance, comfort, assumed consumer acceptance, and even the quality of written and oral descriptions of the team's project, as well as for fuel economy and emissions.
The stated goal of the competition is to stimulate the development of hybrid electric vehicles, which save on energy and emissions by letting a gas or diesel engine run optimally at a steady speed and relying on an electric motor primarily to cover changes in load when climbing a hill or accelerating. Besides Ford, in Dearborn, Mich., which kicked in US $200 000 in seed money in addition to all those shiny new Explorers, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and over a dozen other companies offered material support to the teams. The program is managed by Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Transportation Research, in Argonne, Ill.
Each team also raised funds from local sponsors. Exact numbers were hard to come by, partly because many corporate contributions were given in kind rather than in cash, partly because the teams were cagey. But all acknowledged spending tens of thousands of dollars on their trucks, and rumor had it that the University of California at Davis hit six digits.
Innovation and perspiration
Is it really possible for a bunch of college kids to out-innovate the auto makers, with their vast R&D budgets and comparatively huge resources? No...and yes. There's hardly any room, of course, for revolutionary breakthroughs in a field so capital-intensive. These teams didn't build new engines, or experiment with exotic new magnets or ceramic superconducting wire in their motors. Still, there's lots that can be done that falls under the rubric of what Thomas Edison famously referred to as perspiration: eliminating a kilogram here or there, mixing and matching existing equipment, and fine-tuning it over and over again. It's a junior version of the work that goes into a Ferrari, say, where the difference turns not on Eureka! moments but on grinding work [photos,].
And though many of the teams' insights were useful and practical, the modified SUVs often were not. While these vehicles had to outperform a stock SUV, they had to do it only for the two weeks of competition. At Ford, on the other hand, ”we have to go for 100 000 miles,” says Tom Watson, manager of hybrid electric vehicle powertrain systems for Ford. And not all the SUVs actually lasted the two weeks. The University of Tennessee's entry broke a chain drive and was knocked out of the running. Electrical problems left many hybrids running on gas alone before the competition's many stages ended. One team taking reporters out for a spin had to get out and push the last 90 meters or so.
For the students, perhaps the biggest lessons weren't so much technical as organizational. Competitors had to learn how real engineers work in industry—no small accomplishment. When prospective employers gripe about technical schools, the refrain is almost always the same: too many newly minted engineers are unable to work with professionals in other disciplines, and they find it difficult to set priorities and get a complex job done. Also, rookie engineers struggling to work on different aspects of a given problem concurrently usually fail to communicate effectively about what they are doing.