The space program gave us Teflon, and military aircraft development gave us disc brakes and drive-by-wire systems, so maybe it will take the U.S. Army to give us civilian fuel-cell vehicles.
That's some of the thinking behind a collaboration between General Motors Corp. and the Army on a battle truck project that could help improve troop mobility and safety while slashing fuel costs. A GM executive said the Army wants to begin placing hybrid trucks in its fleet by the end of the decade.
Because the military can pay much higher prices than civilians for new technologies, GM executives think the program will help hasten the day fuel-cell-powered passenger vehicles are available at car dealerships.
GM and the Army's National Automotive Center unveiled last week a hybrid heavy-duty pickup that combines diesel-electric power with an on-board fuel cell to generate power for battlefield electronics such as portable radar and weapon systems.
The fuel cell also would enable the trucks to generate electricity in so-called stealth mode, with the diesel engine off for as long as five hours, said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research, development and planning.
That's a critical advantage in wartime because the trucks would be harder to hear or find with heat-seeking weapons, said Dennis Wend, executive director of the automotive center.
The program also would help speed development of fuel cells for civilian use by providing accelerated testing in harsh conditions, Burns said last week in an interview during the North American International Auto Show.
The Army wants to purchase 30,000 hybrid trucks a year as it moves to convert its fleet of about 700,000 pickups, Burns said.
The hybrid Silverado pickup will be the prototype the Army will use for preparing specifications for a competitive bid package it plans to release by mid-2004, he said.
And GM, which already would have the basic technologies in development, "would be a very interested bidder," Burns said.
DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group, which has developed a hybrid Ram pickup called the Contractor Special that generates electricity to power auxiliary equipment, also is a candidate for military conversion. The civilian version of the Contractor Special will hit the consumer market this year.
The Army spends as much as $400 per gallon transporting diesel fuel to the battlefield, Wend said. It must be carried in, often by helicopter, because combat units cannot depend on local supplies. The hybrid fuel-cell truck is "critical for the Army," he said. "Seventy percent of the tonnage of materiel we carry when we go to war is fuel. Anything that can reduce that saves us time, saves us materiel and saves tens of millions of dollars."
The hybrid system not only would increase the distance each vehicle could travel before it needed refueling, but also would generate electricity and produce the hydrogen needed to feed the fuel cell. That would further reduce the amount of diesel and other petroleum fuels a unit would have to carry with it as it advanced.
"Right now, the Army tows diesel generators behind its diesel pickups as it travels, and then uses the generators to provide electricity to power its field bases," Burns said.
The prototype truck would eliminate the need for generators -- making convoys more mobile and compact and further reducing their fuel needs.
Electricity generated while the trucks were in motion would be used to electrolyze water, a process that releases hydrogen from water; the hydrogen would be stored in solid form in a metal hydride container on each truck. When needed, the hydrogen would be drawn from the container for conversion in the fuel cell to electricity that would propel the hybrid truck's electric motors for "stealth" operation.