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

David Yochum
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Stopping to swap hybrids, I see the Mississippi State Equinox is rolling away with another journalist. Ugh. So I get behind the wheel of Penn State's hybrid Equinox, which had already won Challenge X awards for Best Engineering & Fabrication Workmanship and Best Vehicle Appearance.

Like Texas Tech, Penn State was one of only three teams to use hydrogen as a supplementary or secondary propulsion source in their Equinox (Penn State injected hydrogen into its vehicle's 1.3-liter, turbocharged diesel engine). The guys from State College also crafted a Challenge X Equinox with lightweight titanium brakes and a relatively unmolested interior (many hybrid models had wires strewn everywhere), and their hybrid provided nearly identical performance to the regular Equinox.

I am in a Penn State Equinox that is efficient and sufficient. Even the trunk area has a custom fabricated battery pack cover to maximize interior volume. But the SUV isn't fun to drive (although the turbocharged diesel offered more power than I expected). Left to wonder if a performance-oriented Challenge X Equinox hybrid even exists, I get out of Penn State's vehicle and look down the rows of four-doors.

At this point, I'm still keeping an eye out for the Mississippi State Equinox. More accurately, I'm practically drooling for a chance to sample MSU's dreamy, six-speed manual.

But the MSU Equinox is out again, and I'm told it won't be back soon. Time for Plan B.

Introducing myself to Tulsa students, I ask for drive time in their less popular six-speed, through-the-road-parallel hybrid. It just so happens that Tulsa's Equinox has the same transmission and 1.9-liter GM direct-injection turbo diesel engine that was in the elusive MSU hybrid.

I get in, turn the key, and almost immediately begin darting through Central Park traffic.

Ahhhhhhhhhhh.

Without question, this six-speed hybrid is the performance SUV I had been waiting for.

However, while I'm waiting at a stoplight, the clutch pedal in Tulsa's experimental Chevy suddenly begins disappearing from under my foot! (By this, I mean that it was literally retracting into the Equinox's engine bay until only the brake and accelerator pedals remained.)

I turn to one of Tulsa's student representatives in the passenger seat.

"Um, yeah, so I think I lost your clutch."

Mari Riera, Tulsa's outreach coordinator, just giggles.

"I forgot to tell you," she says. "When the hybrid battery is fully charged, you simply put the gear selector in second gear and the Equinox will drive on battery power. And you don't need to shift."

Amazing.

Tulsa crafted this unique, city-standard transmission for their Equinox hybrid to simplify stop-and-go traffic and improve fuel economy. Mississippi State's hybrid may be somewhere else on its way to winning the Challenge X competition (which it did, based on overall performance), but this single feature on the Tulsa Equinox wins my heart. Who wouldn't want to drive a hybrid with a real, six-speed manual transmission and then be able to drive it without shifting gears whenever you wanted? And why haven't automobile manufacturers adopted this technology for city commuters?

I know the Challenge X competition is mostly just an exploratory exercise for future engineers. I also learned that the cost of all the technology students applied to each hybrid Equinox is more than an unreasonable $200,000 to order, engineer, and install. But as Tulsa's team, and students from all of Challenge X's 17 colleges and universities have proven, GM is only scraping the surface when it comes to exciting hybrid vehicle technology. Perhaps the automotive giant should start taking a closer look at what else could be accomplished by exploring hybrid power (and I'm not just talking about developing the plug-in Chevy Volt hybrid).

Of course, this can only happen if GM and other car companies can begin turning profits and reinvesting that money into alternative power. If they can't, automakers are in for a stormy future.

And I'd advise them all to pack a heavy-duty umbrella.

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