Building the Better SUV

Would you be smiling if you were riding in a jury-rigged truck that had an emergency evacuation button and a giant tank of highly flammable hydrogen fuel behind the seat? It was par for the course at the FutureTruck Competition in Michigan, hosted by Ford Motor Company and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Engineering students from the University of Wisconsin rally around their cleaner SUV, which won this year"s FutureTruck competition.©FutureTruck

For the past three years, engineering students from 15 North American universities have been working to produce an environmentally acceptable sport-utility vehicle. The idea is to take 2002 Ford Explorers and give them both better fuel economy and lower emission levels.

Ford and the DOE provide resources, but the students commit their time and talent to produce 15 greener machines. The technology includes both series and parallel electric/gas hybrids, advanced batteries, hydrogen and other alternative fuels, and copious amounts of lightweight materials.

While some of the ideas were entirely original, the teams mostly focused on practical ways to put already existing environmental technology into production. John Miller of Team Tennessee maintains that "getting the hardware into an already in-production vehicle was definitely the biggest challenge."

Some teams struggled at first, but made steady progress over the three years. According to Andrew Leslie of Texas Tech University, "We didn’t place so well last year, but we were able to change and improve on some things for this year’s competition."

As always at FutureTruck (and its predecessor, FutureCar), students labor until the last minute, and sometimes things go comically awry. The noises—and smells—were occasionally alarming. Ford kept a fleet of its new Hybrid Escapes on hand as donor vehicles. In the end, though, the Explorers remained intact. The winning team from the University of Wisconsin created an innovative parallel hybrid called the "Moolander" that was able to achieve an amazing 33 percent increase in on-road fuel economy and a 50 percent reduction in emissions over existing Explorers.

One of the Wisconsin team’s secrets was an aluminum frame that saved 200 pounds. The Explorer engine was replaced with a 1.8-liter Ford diesel, complemented by a Toyota Prius-derived nickel metal hydride battery pack. Ford, under fire from some greens for having the domestic industry’s lowest average fuel economy, nevertheless wins praise for the new hybrid Escape and its participation in FutureTruck. Dan Becker of the Sierra Club says he hopes Ford will extend its hybrid technology to many other models in its fleet.

Although many of the students would clearly love to take their FutureTruck designs into mass production, Ford’s public affairs representative, Michael Vaughn, begs off, claiming, "The infrastructure and the economy aren’t there yet." With global warming looming and oil prices soaring, the quest to build a better SUV will continue. Next year’s crop of engineering students will participate in a new competition, Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainability, in which they"ll work on a General Motors vehicle.