Challenge X: The Future

The challenge for engineering students in General Motors' Challenge X competition is to take a factory SUV and make a better vehicle out of it than its professional designers realized. The payoff in the multi-year contest is not much in terms of money, a token prize of US $7000, but an outstanding educational experience for the students, as well as for the big car maker itself. In this month's online feature "What If You Had to Build a Socially Responsible SUV?", our automotive correspondent John Voelcker reports from the scorching Arizona mesa on this year's trials, with accompanying exclusive pictures taken by car photo essayist Brenda Priddy.

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and other government agencies, the Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility contest is a three-year endeavor that pits 17 of the best engineering schools in North America against one another to re-engineer a GM Equinox to minimize energy consumption, emissions, and greenhouse gases while maintaining or exceeding the vehicle's utility and performance.

In Year 1 (2005), the students competed in modeling, simulating, and testing a vehicle powertrain and subsystems through a battery of presentations. Last month, for Year 2, the teams had to develop and integrate their advanced powertrain and subsystems into their donated SUVs and put them through their paces at the General Motors' Mesa Proving Grounds in Arizona.

Next year, the universities will refine their creations to provide "showroom" autos that meet consumer requirements. These may include the ability to tow a trailer weighing 453 kg or more up a 5 percent grade for many miles in 43 degrees C heat and instant starting in temperatures well below -18 degrees C, as well as providing air-conditioning that works flawlessly, comfortable seats, the storage space that buyers expect, and enough acceleration to merge comfortably into freeway traffic with a full load of people and luggage while towing that trailer.

The participants include electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering students and computer scientists, supplemented by the odd nuclear or industrial engineer, according to Voelcker. Averaging their efforts into one morphed prototype, he observes, would have produced "an Equinox retrofitted with a 1.9-liter turbodiesel running on B20 biodiesel, driving the front wheels through a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, mated to a parallel hybrid system including a nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery pack and an electric motor driving the rear wheels."

However, each team made its own tradeoffs in design and adaptation within the specifications allotted. For example, the University of Waterloo built a series fuel-cell hybrid, with a 65-kW fuel cell and a 336-volt NiMH battery pack running two 67-kW AC induction motors—not enough to win this phase of the competition but enough to garner the "Spirit of the Challenge" award.

The overall winner of Year 2 was the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The runners-up, in order, were: the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Mississippi State University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Tennessee.

Voelcker was impressed by the young engineers he met in the mesa. He writes about the great pride they took in their work and their fundamental desire to improve automotives by designing socially responsible vehicles: "Their attitudes, and the various technologies they are working with, promise exciting automobiles in the years to come."


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.