The University Record, June 25, 1996

Students gear up for phase one of FutureCar Challenge

U-M engineering students make last-minute modifications to a 1996 Ford Taurus, which they configured to run on diesel fuel and electricity for the national FutureCar Challenge. Students and their car competed against 11 other student-designed hybrid vehicles June 17--24 in Dearborn and Detroit.

Photo by Sally Pobojewski

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services


Powered by diesel fuel, electricity stored in its nickel-cadmium batteries, and the creativity and hard work of U-M engineering students, a new energy-efficient, environmentally friendly automobile was driven into the Ford Motor Co. Mechanic's Lot in Dearborn on June 17.

The U-M car, a modified 1996 Ford Taurus, was one of 12 student-designed vehicles competing for $60,000 in prize money in the first phase of the FutureCar Challenge June 17-24 in Dearborn and Detroit. After the 1996 competition, student teams will have another year to prepare for the final phase of the competition to take place in June 1997.

The FutureCar Challenge is one of many programs in the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles---a national research effort involving all three major U.S. automotive manufacturers, eight federal agencies and 18 national laboratories. Whether student or professional engineer, the goal is the same: to create a midsize "super car" that will meet or beat all urban pollution standards, achieve three times the fuel efficiency of comparable vehicles, and still be marketable, affordable and safe for consumers.

About 50 U-M engineering students, mostly undergraduates, have been spending nights and weekends for the past year researching, designing, building and testing their entry in the 1996 competition, according to Enrico Cacanindin, a senior in aerospace engineering.

"We expect next week's testing to be rigorous and intense," Cacanindin said early last week. "After passing a mechanical inspection of all eight major vehicle systems, we must perform well in tests of acceleration, handling, endurance and consumer acceptability." As if this weren't enough, there's added stress of having to switch from T-shirts and jeans to business suits for formal design presentations to panels of automotive engineers and corporate executives.

The U-M's entry in this year's FutureCar competition used a Volkswagen turbocharged diesel engine and two electric motors manufactured by Unique Mobility. Nickel-cadmium batteries provided by Saft America Inc. capture electric energy released by the motors as they slow down during braking and use it for battery recharge to minimize wasted energy and squeeze the maximum efficiency from every drop of diesel fuel.

"We chose diesel fuel because it was the most efficient fuel currently available," Cacanindin explained. "For the 1997 competition, we hope to burn dimethyl ether (DME), which to our knowledge has never been successfully used in a vehicle before. With DME, we believe we can achieve 40 to 50 miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency, with a 90 percent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions and a 50 percent reduction in carbon monoxide emissions."

Integrating the vehicle's three motors was no easy task, according to Cacanindin. As an example, he explained how the electric motors are often used to start the U-M vehicle. When the engine reaches efficient idle speed, a programmable controller automatically releases the clutch and the diesel motor takes over. Sometimes the electric motors operate in tandem with the diesel; sometimes they don't. "The hard part was writing software to coordinate the precise timing of power shifts between the diesel and electric motors," he said.

The "brain" of the U-M's FutureCar is a controller that integrates all the electronic sensors connected to the vehicle's components. Housed inside a slim, silver box in the engine compartment, its mechanical integration and packaging were designed by

U-M students under the leadership of Heather Beaudoin, a 1996 graduate in mechanical engineering.

Other team leaders include Technical Manager Bryan Simmons, a 1995 U-M mechanical engineering graduate; and students Brian Bishop and Dan Griffin (combustion engine); Janet Booth (energy storage); Carlene Slis and Rod Mach (electric motors and controls); Balachandar Krishnaraj (packaging); and Jim Kane (control strategy).

Twenty-six corporate and university sponsors have contributed about $60,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to the first phase of the FutureCar project, according to Cacanindin. In addition to the College of Engineering, major corporate sponsors include Ford Motor Co., Amoco, Lear Seating Corp., Ryder Truck Systems and Siemens Automotive.

The FutureCar Challenge is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), a joint research venture of Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.