In Pursuit of a Better SUV

DN Staff

May 5, 2003

5 Min Read
In Pursuit of a Better SUV

Winning Wheels: The Penn State team of 2002 converted this Explorer into a parallel hybrid electric vehicle -- combining a diesel engine and an ac induction motor (operating as both motor and generator) to power the vehicle.

Madison, WI-"Last year, I preached to the team: 'If we get down to work early, we can win'," says Jason Helgren, leader of last year's Future-Truck team from the University of Wisconsin. His inspiration worked. The team dug in early and won the top prize for its fuel efficiency-improved redesign of a Ford Explorer. "Our biggest key to achieving fuel economy was to use a high-efficiency diesel engine, and we kept our weight down," says Helgren. The team's effort was a symbolic attempt to reconcile the SUV to newly emerging concerns over its high gas consumption and dirty emissions.

While more than half of all passenger vehicles are light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, Americans are becoming more aware of the environmental downside of running gas guzzlers. Add to this the new concern over our reliance on foreign oil and the vulnerabilities that dependence brings, and it's not too surprising that consumers are interested in efficient gas consumption, even if they don't want to give up their roomy SUVs.

As the automotive industry struggles to reconcile these conflicting desires with new technology, a handful of companies have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to encourage the spirit of developing fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly SUVs by sponsoring FutureTruck (, a competition in which teams of students from 15 top North American universities are challenged to re-engineer a conventional mid-size vehicle. The goal is to lower emissions while increasing fuel economy by at least 25%, all without sacrificing performance, utility, safety, or affordability. Companies in the auto industry work with DOE to support and judge the competition.

During the first two years of the competition, in 2000 and 2001, student teams worked with co-sponsor General Motors Corp. on Chevy Suburbans. Last year, the competition shifted to Ford Explorers donated by the automaker.

Judging for this year's competition will take place over ten days beginning June 2 at the Ford Michigan Proving Ground in Romero, MI, and at the Allen Park Testing Laboratories in Allen Park, MI. Team award ceremonies will be held June 12 in conjunction with Ford's Centennial Anniversary in Dearborn.

The University of Wisconsin team won in 2002 by reducing the Explorer's greenhouse gas index by 50% and increasing over-the-road fuel economy by 45%, achieving a respectable 21.83 miles per gallon. The team re-engineered components and used advanced materials such as an aluminum and steel hybrid frame and a titanium exhaust system. Seven out of ten teams achieved better overall over-the-road fuel economy compared to the base 2002 Explorer. Two of the teams managed to exceed the Explorer's base performance while make environmentally sound changes to it.

Three of the modified Explorers actually qualified as Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles by controlling pollutants such as non-methane organic gases, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen. Student teams were also required to maintain the Explorer's performance. The second-place Michigan Technology University team and the University of Idaho team both beat the stock Explorer in the eighth-mile acceleration test.

Halgren's University of Wisconsin team strolled off with highest honors last year, and now fellow 2002 team member Katie Orgish hopes to take the team back to the top spot this June. For Orgish, the allure of the FutureTruck competition is the opportunity it gives her to get away from her desk. "I don't think I'd mind working in the automotive industry," says Orgish. "I like working with a team and I liked getting out in the field and away from the computer."

Orgish is well-prepared to take the helm of the defending team, since this year will be her fourth year in FutureTruck competition. She spent last year in the know-all, help-all position as team "Radar"-a position modeled after the role of Radar in the "M.A.S.H." television show. "Just like Radar, I had to take care of all the details," says Orgish.

Software Plays a Supporting Role

Student team leaders gathered in Austin, Texas in January to kick off this year's competition and to train with co-sponsor National Instruments Corp. ( on the company's LabVIEW Real-Time and other virtual instrumentation technology provided to the student teams. National Instruments also gives each team access to an applications engineer who stands ready to advise the teams on their technological remakes of their Explorers. "The LabVIEW real-time is the brains that help preserve fuel economy for the hybrid vehicles," say Brent Boetking, data acquisitions product manager at National Instruments.

For corporate sponsors, the involvement in the competition mirrors their own efforts to re-engineer SUVs for fuel efficiency and low emissions. Like the student teams, automotive OEMs and their suppliers are challenged to make these improvements without letting the vehicle's price and performance standards slip. "This is our fourth year participating. We do it because we're interested in education and fuel efficiency," says Misty Matthews, coordinator for company and government relations at Delphi Corp. She notes that even though the company doesn't turn to the innovations implemented by the student teams, the team members are viewed as potential employee candidates.

Sponsors Scout For Talent

National Instruments also scrutinizes the teams for potential engineering talent. "We've hired some of the graduates of the program," says Ray Almgren, vice president of product marketing and academics at National Instruments. The company also benefits from its involvement by watching how team members work with National Instruments' products. "We see it as a great opportunity to understand how engineers interact with our tools in these applications," says Almgren. The match-up is very appropriate, since many of National Instruments tools are designed to solve fuel efficiency challenges in the real world. "Our applications are designed for controlling next-generation automobiles, and our tools are used extensively in fuel cell and hydro-electric products."

No doubt FutureTruck participants of the future will be evaluating a whole range of new technologies in their quest for a better SUV.

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