UC Team Wins FutureTruck Competition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Chevrolet Suburban using a "plug-in" hybrid power plant designed and built by UC Davis engineering students has captured top honors in the national FutureTruck 2001 competition.

The entry--designed to meet California's demand for high-mileage, low-emission vehicles--achieved average fuel economy of 25 miles per gallon in combined highway and city tests in Michigan this month. That's a 67% improvement over the stock Suburban's 15-mpg average.

Andrew Frank, head of UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies and one of two staff advisors to the 35-member student team, said the university will compete in the second two-year installment of the FutureTruck contest. In the next phase, university teams will adapt a 2002 Ford Explorer, the best-selling sport-utility vehicle brand in the nation.

"We'll go on with FutureTruck and with any other projects like it that may come our way," Frank said. "They give us a national forum to show we can meet these goals and do it at a reasonable cost."

He estimated that a commercial version of the modified Suburban could be produced by General Motors Corp. for $5,000 to $6,000 more than a stock model that uses a thirsty V-8 engine. Various state and federal subsidies for low-emission, high-mileage, alternate power plant vehicles could bring the actual cost to consumers back to normal, Frank said.

The FutureTruck awards were announced last week in ceremonies in Washington. UC Davis, the only California team in the competition, bested 14 other universities for the overall first-place award.

The engineering goals of FutureTruck, which began last year, are to take large sport-utility vehicles and increase their fuel efficiency and lower their greenhouse gas emissions while achieving national ultra-low exhaust emission standards.

The Davis team actually cut emissions to meet the tougher California standard for super ultra-low emission vehicle, or SULEV, status.

The students replaced the Suburban's stock 5.3-liter, V-8 engine with a four-cylinder gasoline engine from a Saturn sedan, linked to a pair of electric motors. The hybrid power plant produced about the same power and torque as the stock engine, said Mark Duvall, a UC Davis researcher and advisor to the team.

Additionally, the team installed a series of storage batteries that power the Suburban's electric motors. The motors are recharged by plugging in to the commercial electric grid during the night, when rates are lowest and there is a surplus of power.

The university's victory "shows that it is possible to satisfy both California and national [fuel efficiency and emissions] goals in the same vehicle," Frank said. "The technology is here. We did it without using any really high advancement in technology, like fuel cells, which still require a lot of development and are very expensive."

In individual categories, the University of Wisconsin at Madison took first place for fuel efficiency with a combined city-highway average of 28 miles per gallon. The team's Suburban was outfitted with a five-cylinder diesel engine and an electric motor and used a custom aluminum frame that cut the vehicle's weight by 200 pounds.

The list of winners, as well as other information about the FutureTruck program, can be found on the Internet at http://www.futuretruck.org.

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