A day at the General Motors/Department of Energy Challenge X Competition

David Yochum
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A day at the General Motors/Department of Energy Challenge X Competition

I wake up and Manhattan is miserable. It's pouring rain on a dark, May morning, and snagging a taxi that will shuttle me to Central Park, site of the 2008 General Motors/Department of Energy Challenge X hybrid vehicle competition, becomes a challenge in itself. Walking a few blocks north of midtown, I spy a yellow savior waiting near a hotel. But the taxi doesn't matter much now. I'm already soaked (didn't pack an umbrella - Jay-Z says it just rains money in Manhattan). Sitting in the cab, I pat my face dry with an undershirt and a piece of paper.

Today, the very same Mother Nature that GM and the Department of Energy advocate saving is pounding New York commuters. I put up with the soggy, Big City traffic because Automobile Magazine has been invited to sample some of GM's newest, greenest SUVs - a fleet of Chevrolet Equinox hybrids. Of course, GM engineered none of the Equinox hybrids I'm about to drive. And none will ever be for sale.

As part of the Challenge X competition, 17 colleges and universities were given a regular Chevrolet Equinox four years ago and told to develop it with the same goal -produce a new hybrid SUV with the most improved fuel economy and lowest emissions, all while maintaining driver comfort and vehicle performance.

Not an easy task, considering Chevy's Equinox was designed in the golden era of SUVs.

Waiting to see these college-built eco-stars, I imagine students turning their Equinoxes inside out, crafting crazy grass-powered hybrids in woodshop settings. The fleet of green Chevys would now be lowered, have body kits, tail fins, hood scoops, diffusers, and all types of improved aerodynamic gear. I expect them to have some new LED headlights and taillights, maybe even a convertible top so passengers can fully inhale the environment they would be saving.

Yet pulling up next to the hybrids, I spy 16 Chevys lined in rows and looking rather mundane. Each has similar wheels and go-fast sponsor stickers. They all have Michelin run-flat tires and conservative paint jobs. One has a hood scoop.

Where did I get this idea that hybrids would look exciting?

Huddled under awnings are teams of college students and Challenge X project advisors, all answering media questions about their modified people movers. I chat with a few of the competition advisors, who explain the enormous amounts of time and energy that went into building their respective Challenge X projects.

After a short Challenge X event introduction, it's revealed that media will only have about an hour to actually drive the students' new Equinox hybrids before the giant convoy of SUVs heads south for Englishtown, NJ, then onward to Washington, D.C., the Challenge X's final destination. (The hybrids are evaluated throughout this journey based on 18 categories, including acceleration, road emissions, consumer acceptability, and presentation).

Quickly, I run through the rain, ready to test what is rumored to be the best Equinox hybrid in the competition (Mississippi State's through-the-road parallel, 1.9-liter turbocharged diesel SUV).

Too late - it's taken.

And I'm wet again.

Wanting to stay warm, I hop into Texas Tech's E85 and hydrogen-fueled, 2.4-liter four-cylinder hybrid, which is assisted by a 4-kW belt drive alternator-starter (BAS) and a 36-V battery. Matt Harrison, Texas Tech electrical engineering graduate student, explains a BAS provides the capability to shut down the Equinox's engine during stops and allows for limited regenerative braking. The silver Texas Tech Chevy also has a 10-kW hydrogen fuel cell, mounted in the rear cargo area, which powers the vehicle's 12-V and 36-V electrical systems.

This first Equinox hybrid, like many of the Challenge X hybrids, suffers from slow acceleration (due to excess hybrid component weight), and its raw, regenerative braking system provides inadequate stopping power throughout the Central Park test circle. Still, Texas Tech's Equinox runs and drives, and it improves the Equinox's fuel efficiency, meaning the Tech team did its job. In fact, Texas, along with every other school, is already ahead of the University of Michigan's Challenge X team (whose series hydraulic Equinox never left Michigan's garage).

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