DETROIT — Picture your family piled into the Taurus, on a vacation from the Midwest to the nation's capital ... but this Taurus gets 60 miles to the gallon and spews half the pollution.
Is this the road to your automotive future?
Almost.... Last week, 12 teams set out from Detroit to Washington in cars designed to bring the future off the drawing board, onto the interstate.
The FutureCar Challenge attempted to show that marrying a conventional engine to an electric motor could propel a family sedan, at highway speeds, with less fuel consumption and pollution.
"We want to prove that this [technology] is feasible and that people will buy it," says Andy Frank, of the University of California, Davis, team.
Only two cars made it under their own power, an indication that while the technology works, it still needs a tuneup.
The "hybrids" were built and driven by students from 12 universities in the US and Canada in a 600-mile endurance rally. The FutureCar Challenge is the student equivalent of the industry/government Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. That program's goal is a car that gets more than 80 miles per gallon and meets all consumer acceptability standards in price, comfort, performance, and reliability by 2003.
For the 12 university teams, the goal was a car with few compromises for consumers - no easy feat with a mid-size sedan that must take on a second motor (electric) and battery pack.
A few compromised trunk or interior space or seat cushioning to accommodate electrical boxes and batteries, and one had an engine in the trunk. But most maintained their original space, sacrificing only the spare tire for a can of Fix-a-Flat.
"It feels like you're back in the early days of the automobile," says Paul Zangari, spokesman for USCAR, a US government/industry consortium that sponsored the event. "Everybody's tinkering around, trying things to see what works."
The night before the endurance rally, the teams topped their tanks and batteries with precisely measured fuel and electricity. At 8 a.m. last Monday, the cars pulled out of the GM Technical center and headed for Akron, Ohio.
Not everything went smoothly. Over lunch in Akron, UC Davis had to reprogram a computer chip to restart the engine.
Virginia Tech's car broke down returning from a propane refill during lunch.
With each unscheduled stop, the students were prodded on by an ominous "rear pace car." If it passed them, they were eliminated.
Even with their problems, the hybrids proved two points: Internal combustion engines become more efficient with electric technology, and electric cars can travel long distances with help from a traditional engine. No purely electric car today could make the trip from Detroit to Washington in two days. It would have to recharge too often. The FutureCars did it with no more than three stops for gas and, in some cases, overnight recharging.
Even with their engines running, the cars produced far less pollution than standard cars. The University of West Virginia car produced less than half the pollutants allowed under strict California standards.
On Tuesday, starting from Warrendale, Pa., the cars faced the Allegheny mountains. Three more dropped out. West Virginia failed to start; the University of California, Davis pulled over with smoke billowing from its special clutch; and Ohio State broke down after the mountains.
The car from Montreal's Concordia University was saved by bottled spring water, purchased from a convenience store and lavished on a steaming radiator.
The teams made it to Washington, but only two under their own power, the rest on trailers. Of the two finishers, the University of Wisconsin car never broke down, but, concerned about reliability, the team disconnected the electric motor.
Only the Concordia University car made the entire trip with the dual-powered hybrid functioning as designed.