MESA, ARIZ. — Americans LUV big SUVs.
So before environmentalists and other critics run them off the road, politicians and automakers are racing to clean up SUVs' reputation as oversized, gas-guzzling polluters.
Last month, General Motors, the federal Department of Energy, and teams from 15 universities converged on the GM Desert Proving Grounds here to prove SUVs don't have to be environmental disasters.
Each of the universities was given a brand new Chevrolet Suburban and $10,000 seed money to improve the beast's efficiency.
The proving grounds, a vast tract of unforgiving desert where the automaker harbors top-secret upcoming models, is a test of endurance for man and machine in parching heat that reached 113 degrees. (See story below.)
All but one of the universities' decal-flecked Suburbans were hybrid-powered - running on electricity and a smaller, efficient gasoline or diesel engine to save fuel and reduce critical greenhouse emissions by as much as two-thirds. The other one ran just on batteries.
"The rest of the country will eventually benefit from the types of cleaner, more efficient technologies we're seeing here," says Mark Maher, director of Powertrain Systems for General Motors Truck Group.
The hitch? The trucks still had to take the abuse that the most demanding users - not just soccer moms - dish out. Some of the tests involved towing a large 7,000 lb. trailer with a wind-grabbing plank on the front; navigating an off-road course that taxed the vehicles' power, handling, and ground clearance (to discourage teams from simply hanging large battery packs off the bottom); and slaloming through a cone-delineated handling track.
The electric giants whirred and the diesels clattered down a quarter-mile acceleration course. Judges pored over engine bays and plopped onto seats.
The FutureTruck competition follows a four-year contest among many of the same universities called FutureCar that set out to build 80-mile per gallon mid-size sedans. And FutureCar spun out of the government-industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which would put hybrid-electric midsize sedans from each of Detroit's Big Three on the road by 2004.
Auto industry leaders have reached a general consensus that hybrid powertrains using both internal-combustion engines and electric motors will power the vehicles of the near future in a transition to fuel-cell-powered vehicles further in the future.
The technology exists today to build a vehicle that can carry seven passengers and all their luggage up a 30 percent grade while getting 100 miles per gallon, says environmental visionary Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo.
These FutureTrucks represent a first step toward that vision, though they'd have to lose a lot of weight to get that kind of mileage.
Tinkering with SUVs is a big improvement over building hybrid cars, says Prof. Chris Atkinson, faculty adviser of the West Virginia University team, a long-time FutureCar contestant.
For starters, they guzzle a lot of gas. So when West Virginia recorded 23 miles per gallon of diesel fuel versus 15 m.p.g. of gasoline for the stock Suburban, that's a big percentage gain.
Multiply that by the fact that more than half of all new vehicles are trucks these days, and it makes a big difference in foreign oil dependence and global-warming emissions.
In terms of smog-forming pollution, today's SUVs are already among the cleanest vehicles on the road, says Dr. Atkinson. So reducing fuel consumption and resulting carbon-dioxide emissions is key. His team uses a fuel-sipping diesel engine and a huge experimental catalytic converter to clean up the exhaust.
Big, heavy SUVs also provide plenty of space for the extra hardware -electric motors, controllers, and sizable battery packs -that hybrids require. Throughout the FutureCar competition, teams sacrificed interior and trunk space, seat padding, and spare tires. The FutureTrucks were much more accommodating than cars. And they didn't notice the extra weight as much. All but one of the teams' trucks weighed more than the stock Suburban.
While automakers are clearly working on hybrid-SUVs of their own, the universities may come up with solutions that automakers wouldn't explore because of the vast overhead costs of traditional manufacturing.
One such solution this year came from the University of Maryland, which pulled the original frame off the Suburban and replaced it with a hand-built aluminum replica that kept the weight below stock.
Another solution came from Michigan Technological University, which built an advanced "power split" hybrid. (Hybrids combine the advantages of internal combustion for long-distance cruising and electric drive for acceleration and climbing hills.)
The University of Virginia planned a fuel-cell powered truck, but switched to batteries when a sponsor failed to come through with a fuel cell big enough. "When we said 'donate,' people pretty much just laughed," says Ryan Smith, the team's chief powertrain engineer.
Keeping the trucks running was another key factor. Many had to be towed out of the sand bog because one power source or another failed.
In the end, West Virginia took home the overall trophy, scoring the lowest on greenhouse gas emissions.
"It's not easy, but we're showing that it doesn't really have to be rocket science," says team member Sam Taylor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society