ChallengeX – GM Supports Alternative Vehicle Research

June 11, 2007

Terrence Williams from UC-Davis (Team Fate) plug-in hybridI had the opportunity last week to visit General Motors’ headquarters in downtown Detroit for an event with the ChallengeX program. ChallengeX is a program co-sponsored by GM and the US Department of Energy. Teams from universities across the US (and one from Canada) were given a stock Chevrolet Equinox to use as the base vehicle platform and were challenged to improve its efficiency and reduce its fuel use. “Seventeen teams have been challenged to re-engineer a GM Equinox, a crossover sport utility vehicle to minimize energy consumption, emissions, and greenhouse gases while maintaining or exceeding the vehicle’s utility and performance.”

This is a multi-year program, which has already gone through two years of evaluations and awards. And, while the initial information I had about the program was that this was the conclusion of the challenge, I learned that there is going to be a fourth year to the program, which will focus on consumer acceptability issues.

The top three programs for this year’s competition were Mississipi State (1st place), University of Wisconsin (2nd place), and Virginia Tech (3rd place). The vehicles went through a multi-day testing at GM’s proving grounds, and were judged on numerous criteria. More information about the ChallengeX results can be found on GM’s FYI blog.

I talked for a bit with Dr. Andrew Frank, the faculty adviser, and with Terrence Wiliams, the project team leader for the team from University of California at Davis, who call themselves Team Fate. Of the 17 teams in ChallengeX, only the team from UC-Davis had a plug-in hybrid vehicle. (Unfortunately, a broken clutch kept them from completing the competition, and their vehicle was not one that was availalbe to be driven.) To help demonstrate their vehicle’s ability to travel without needing to use it’s internal combustion engine, Team Fate had a demonstration trailer with a solar panel for charging their vehicle (though it wasn’t able to be on display with the vehicle). Like the Volt, it was designed to be able to travel a reasonable range based on a charge collected from a plug in source (be it a solar PV array on a garage roof or just a grid-tied circuit) and avoid the use of the fuelled half of the system altogether.

Plug-in Hybrid EquinoxSeveral other ChalengeX vehicles were available to be driven (albeit just a trip around the block at GM’s Renaissance Center headquarters in Detroit). Most of the teams (12 of the 17 competitors) used biodiesel (all were using a B20 blend) as their fuel. One team which went a bit farther with their entry, however, was the University of Waterloo’s vehicle, which was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, rather than some form of internal combustion engine. (I had the chance to drive that vehicle, and that will be covered in a forthcoming article.)

In addition to the announcement of the winners in this year’s stage of the ChallengeX program, I also had an opportunity to meet with a couple of GM executives, who were discussing aspects of GM’s forthcoming Volt program, which was the topic of everyone’s interest.

Micky Bly, engineering director for GM’s hybrid vehicle integration contols, spoke to several bloggers present as a special outreach. Much of the discussion dealt with the issue of batteries for the new Chevrolet Volt. When GM committed to the Volt, the question of where they were going to find the batteries with sufficient technology seemed to be one of the key obstacles to bringing a plug-in hybrid to the marketplace. The week before, GM had announced their selection of two suppliers to work with in moving toward the development of a suitable battery. This is a big step forward in bringing this car to the market, and there were many questions about the program.

The focus is on lithium-ion batteries, which are, esentially, a scaled up version of what you have in your cell phone or your laptop computer, in all likelihood. Lithium-ion batteries have the working charge range and the energy density to serve as the batteries for this vehicle. But, as has been seen in several recent cases, sometimes these batteries can overheat and cause fires, and those problems need to be solved if GM is going to be able to offer a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty on them (which, according to the discusions I had, is what GM is planning).

While no one would give us a release date for the Volt, there is strong enthusiasm for this program among all the people I spoke to. Both Larry Burns (GM’s Vice President, Research & Development and Strategic Planning) and Micky Bly spoke about “displacing petroleum.” Much of the focus with the new vehicle systems that GM is developing, as well as the ChallengeX entries, are working to reduce the amount of petroleum that is required for transportation.

Other blogs present:

Autoblog Green

Other coverage:

After Gutenberg

Green Car Congress