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The University of Wisconsin-Madison took first place for the second consecutive year with their "Moolander" Explorer.

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"Tribrid vehicle" on the other hand, isn't in general use, at least not yet. A group of engineering students from the University of Idaho seriously think it's a possibility. They coined the term to describe their entry into the FutureTruck 2003 challenge, said team leader Ryan Slaugh. FutureTruck competition (and its forerunner FutureCar, 1996-'99) is a collaboration of government, industry and academia to explore clean, efficient automotive technologies.

Ford Motor Company and the U.S. Department of Energy were the headline sponsors for the FutureTruck 2003 competition, as they were last year, and will be again in 2004. The previous two years, General Motors joined DOE as a banner sponsor. The competition challenged 15 top North American universities to convert a conventional Ford Explorer SUV into a HEV that produced lower emissions and at least 25 percent higher fuel economy than the stock Explorer.

The emissions goals include reducing total greenhouse gas emissions and achieving California's Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) standards. That sounds like an attainable assignment when you consider that Ford not only supplied the vehicle for modifying, but threw in almost $275,000 for seed and prize money plus, provided engineering consulting for each team, competition facilities and operational support. Also, other sponsors provided hardware, software and training to integrate technologies into the competition vehicles.

Since this was the second year with the same vehicle, the student teams had the opportunity to refine successful strategies or reengineer systems that hadn't performed as expected in the 2002 competition.

Aaah, but there's a kicker. (Isn't there always one or two?) In this case, the Explorers—in addition to being greener with increased fuel economy—had to maintain the performance, utility, creature comforts and safety attributes consumers want. Oh yes, the total package had to be feasibly produced at a price that buyers wouldn't walk away from.

To meet these challenges, students employed cutting-edge automotive technologies, including advanced propulsion systems, lightweight materials and alternative fuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen. Each of the 15 schools replaced the Explorer's stock V-6 with hybrid powertrains, mostly smaller engines with supplementary electric power.

Then there's that entry from the University of Idaho. In its fourth year of FutureTruck competition, the student team rethought last year's design and came up with a system that combined a Lincoln 3.0-liter V-6 with a low-voltage electric motor assist and hydraulic motor assist, thus the tribrid moniker.

So what the heck is a hydraulic motor assist, and how does it work in a hybrid system?

Called hydraulic power assist, this is a technology developed in a collaboration between Ford and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It harnesses and stores energy normally lost as heat during braking and uses it to propel a vehicle during acceleration. The system uses a hydraulic motor/pump and hydraulic accumulators to store energy. It has the potential to deliver fuel economy improvements of 30-35 percent in stop-and-go drive cycles while reducing exhaust emissions by at least 20 percent and providing substantial improvement in vehicle acceleration times.

Another innovative approach was the "plug-in hybrid" from the University of California, Davis student team. But wait, doesn't an HEV produce its own electricity for the electric motors without having to charge the batteries? Yes, that's true, but the UC Davis Explorer operates as a pure electric vehicle for around 50 miles of commuting then, if you need to travel farther, the traditional hybrid system takes over with its electric motor and Saturn 1.9-liter in-line four to get you there and back.

Like the other 13 university teams, the young aspiring engineers from Idaho and California had a year to plan and prepare their vehicles for the face-off competition, which can best be described as, "the finals from hell." FutureTruck 2003 was held at Ford's Michigan Proving grounds in Romeo on June 2-12.

This isn't a "shine and show" event, although the exterior and interior appearance are judged. Days begin at 6:30 in the morning and often don't end until midnight or after. The first order of business is a rigorous safety and technical inspection—each vehicle has to be mechanically safe to qualify for any competition event. Teams have three days to pass, or they become spectators.

Only six teams made it through the first day. Two teams completed the task on day two, and the remaining seven qualified on the last day, the University of Tennessee making it just under the wire.

From there on, the judging gets tougher. Engineers, technicians and automotive experts from Ford, the Aragonne National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy and Natural Resources Canada evaluate and score each team in 10 additional events that measure all aspects of the vehicle including on- and off-road performance, fuel economy, emissions, consumer acceptability and design evaluation.

While team members are seated behind the steering wheel for events like trailer towing (vehicles must tow a 2,000 pound trailer over a designated route that includes a 17 percent grade) and off-road testing, judges drive the vehicles in events like the dynamic test drive.

According to Jill Adams from the Georgia Tech team in an article she wrote for EVWorld, the judges sometimes drive the vehicles to extinction. "In fact," she said, "it is considered noteworthy for a team to be able to drive their vehicles off the testing pad after the judges have driven it without mercy for 20 minutes."

Reducing emissions is one of the main goals of FutureTruck, and the two emissions tests account for 20 percent of the competition tests. While everyday emissions testing may look at hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide, FutureTruck rules require improvement in greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide and non-methane organic gases.

On June 11, the last day of scored events, the media was invited to test drive some of the vehicles that had completed the events. At the top of my list was the tribrid from the U of Idaho and Cal Davis' plug-in hybrid. The Idaho team was involved in preparing their entrant for the appearance and design competition and the California vehicle was in one of the garage bays with the hood up. I did crawl underneath the Idaho Explorer for a look at the hydraulic system, which had the appearance of a tidy factory installation.

Next on my list were the vehicles from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech, both of which used hydrogen fueled internal combustion engines as part of their hybrid strategy. I found the Texas Tech Explorer in one of the garage bays, also, but the Virginia Tech "Magellan" was available for driving. As I waited for the red Explorer to complete a test run, it suddenly pulled off the test pad and headed for the garage. Apparently all the systems were working, but not all at the same time.

It wasn't possible for serious evaluations of vehicles with just a lap or two around the small test pad used for braking and cornering tests. The enthusiasm from team members couldn't be ignored as they talked about their vehicles. If asked to score, I would have given 100 out of a possible 100 for passion and fervor to the student teams from Cornell, Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Alberta.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison took first place for the second consecutive year with their "Moolander" Explorer, scoring 841 points out a possible 1,000. (They narrowly missed first place in 2001.) I drove the vehicle two laps around a 3.5 mile high- speed track and was more than impressed, and that was before the team was the winner.

What makes this a remarkable achievement is, the Wisconsin team abandoned last year's winning hybrid system and engineered an entirely new one for this year's competition—a common rail direct-injection diesel engine coupled to a 5-speed manual transmission and an electric traction motor. The team did keep the Moolander's lightweight aluminum/steel hybrid chassis, and shed even more weight this year with the use of aluminum extruded bumper beams.

Wisconsin was followed by UC Davis, Michigan Tech, Georgia Tech, Penn State, and Cornell. Just 36 points separated second place UC Davis and fifth place Penn State.

This four-year engineering program began in 1996 as FutureCar, adopting the goals of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) to develop fuel efficient, low emissions cars. With the obvious consumer switch from cars to SUVs and other light trucks, the program emphasis was changed in 2000 to FutureTruck.

Thousands of automotive engineering students have been heavily involved in the FutureCar and FutureTruck projects. Many of these students have gone on to the auto industry in HEV development—a new automotive field with few experienced candidates.

Future Truck 2003 Participating Schools

California Polytehnic State University San Luis Obispo

Cornell University

Georgia Institute of Technology

Michigan Technological University

Ohio State University

Pennsylvania State University

Texas Tech University

University of Alberta

University of California, Davis

University of Idaho

University of Maryland

University of Tennessee

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Virginia Tech

West Virginia University

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