Challenge X Ends, EcoCar launches--into a fast-changing world

Just four years separate the new EcoCar Challenge from its predecessor, Challenge X--but can its student competitors stay ahead of the industry itself?

PHOTO: Roy Feldman/EcoCAR

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.

For instance, if teams modify the Vue Two-Mode by adding plug-in capabilities, giving roughly 10 miles (16 km) of range, GM will likely have beaten them to the punch by shipping a similar vehicle to dealers before the challenge ends. But if they take the bigger leap of redesigning the entire power train as an extended-range electric vehicle, with 40 miles (64 km) of pure electric mileage and an engine that charges a large battery pack rather than driving the wheels—well, GM will probably be there too. The much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt, using that very architecture, is also expected to go on sale in late 2010 as well, midway through Year Three of the challenge.

Regardless of power-train options, GM and its suppliers will likely open the Vue parts bin to student teams, whose designs may also draw on battery packs, electric motors, dc-dc converters, and other gear from the contest’s many equipment sponsors.

As before, EcoCar’s first year is devoted entirely to digital modeling and simulation, using GM’s actual global vehicle development process. It won’t be until the summer of 2009, when Year Two starts, that students will get their hands on actual vehicles to modify, as they did during Year Two of Challenge X. Then, Year Three will be all about refining the vehicles, making them something a soccer mom could drive—ideally without ever noticing the technology changes, except perhaps at the gas pump.

The addition of a fourth year had been a late surprise for Challenge X, which was planned to last just three years. Reinforcing the importance of consumer acceptance, entrants went on the road in Year Four to seek public feedback. Prizes went to teams whose vehicles were best rated during ride-and-drive sessions by actual consumers in Los Angeles and New York City. They also had to remain drivable and reliable over road rallies up to 500 miles (about 800 km) long this past May, from Los Angeles to Anaheim, California, and from New York City to Washington, D.C.

Spectrum Online’s reporter rode from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., in the black and red Ohio State University entry, ably driven by team member John Kruckenberg with his colleague Karem Bayer in the back seat. While the Ohio State vehicle placed third overall (Mississippi State University won, with the University of Wisconsin at Madison placing second), Kruckenberg noted with a grin that a few days before it had logged the fastest time to complete the handling course at a New Jersey racetrack. Their Equinox actually had twin hybrid systems; a full hybrid driving the rear wheels and the GM idle-stop system on the mechanically driven front wheels, giving it sprightly acceleration.

Ohio State and the rest of the teams largely accomplished their goal of creating vehicles that ran predictably and offered all the comfort and entertainment options of a ”normal” sport utility. Most importantly, every vehicle used less fuel, emitted fewer tailpipe pollutants, and had lower levels of greenhouse gas output than the original had.

Whether their successors in the EcoCar Challenge can accomplish the same task, when record U.S. gasoline prices have led North American automakers to tear up and rethink their product plans, is open to question. And that’s what will keep the next challenge as fascinating as Challenge X proved to be.

About the Author

John Voelcker has written about automotive technology and other topics for 20 years. He covered software and microprocessor design for IEEE Spectrum from 1985 to 1990.

To Probe Further

For more on the last year of Challenge X, see Slideshow: 2008 Challenge X.

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