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SPECIAL REPORT: VEHICLES FOR THE NEXT DECADE

What You'll Be Driving

Engineering: The challenge was to come up with cleaner, more efficient, commercially viable cars for the future. And now the effort is bearing fruit.

April 29, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

It was a mission incredible, a task once given the difficulty factor of landing a man on the moon. As with Mercury and Gemini and Apollo, the problems were generations old and their solutions just theories buried within the unknown.

That was in 1993 at the birth of a lightly publicized, little-known industry-government super-car program called Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, or PNGV.

This year, the problems have lessened and solutions are being proved.

And next year, dead on target, at the midpoint of the PNGV challenge, the Detroit auto makers will demonstrate concept vehicles reaching far into the next millennium and incorporating radical technologies that once belonged only to dreamers.

Despite tight security surrounding laboratories at Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler, plus a general refusal among program directors to divulge precise shapes or even some names of the milestone cars, PNGV insiders say most of the concepts, if not all three, will be hybrids powered by small diesel engines and electric motors.

They will be clean-burning, fuel-efficient, five-passenger family sedans weighing 2,000 pounds--in contrast to today's mid-size cars, which weigh 3,000 pounds or more. They will be capable of delivering almost 80 miles per gallon--versus an average 25 mpg for their 1999 antecessors.

"You'd be pretty safe in saying we're all going to put out diesel-hybrid kinds of vehicles," says Bob Culver, on loan to PNGV from Ford.

That means no all-electric vehicles, as once predicted by environmentalists. No propane power. No cars propelled by hydrogen fuel cells. At least, not yet. And despite Buck Rogers futurists who predicted air-cushion vehicles with bubble tops and thrust steering by 2001, our personal transporters will have a wheel on each corner and look depressingly like cars.

"First of all, the diesel engine is a technology that was identified early on in the program as a cycle that gives you 35% more thermal efficiency than a gasoline engine," Culver explains. Now there are the benefits of compression ignition direct injection, or CIDI, which is "a very high-pressure injection system, with a very small nozzle size that does a much better job of atomizing the fuel."

"As such," he says, "you get better fuel distribution, better combustion, and that will lessen, although not eliminate, particulate formation."

*

PNGV represents one giant stride by auto makers that many within the industry call "coopetition," a pursuit of common goals without stifling proprietary achievement. Equally dramatic, notes one study of PNGV, has been an unprecedented collaboration between Motown and the Beltway that rises above past acrimony associated with "government's perceived intrusion in the marketplace" and "industry's alleged lack of responsiveness to issues of public concern."

Here's how Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, old rivals reconfigured into the Bigger Three, are poised to reconcile public concerns with three daring vehicles:

* Ford's super-car offering will be the all-aluminum Prodigy, a four-door based on the 1998 P2000 Diata show car that looked like a stretched Contour and had a 1.2-liter CIDI diesel engine and conventional drive train. The Diata achieved 63 mpg and met its PNGV weight target, which was 40% lighter than a standard Ford Taurus.

"But our concept car will be styled more for the 1990s," Ford's Culver says. "I don't think I'm going to tell you that our car gets 80 mpg--but it is in the ballpark."

Prodigy will combine its starter and alternator in one lightweight package. The storage battery will be smaller, and there will be aluminum in every part and every system, Culver says.

"Then you're able to make the secondary weight saves," he says. "In other words, if you can do an all-aluminum body, get all that weight off, now you can make your springs smaller, your brakes a little smaller, you can downsize the engine, and all those secondary benefits start adding up."

* Observers say that although GM's 2-year-old EV1 electric car--with fewer than 600 vehicles leased to date--has been a commercial failure, its teardrop aerodynamics and power electronics technology remain breakthroughs. Therefore, expect GM's 2000 proof-of-concept vehicle to show the shape of a four-door EV1, similar to the parallel-hybrid vehicle (front wheels driven by an electric motor, rear wheels driven by an Isuzu diesel) that GM already has on the auto show circuit.

Ron York, GM's director in residence with PNGV, inherited the EV1 engineering team after joining the partnership in 1993. He notes that "in terms of technical stretch, the EV1 was about halfway from a conventional vehicle to the challenge of PNGV."

He declined to reveal full details about GM's PNGV car but acknowledged that it will be an aluminum-intensive, 90-horsepower diesel-electric hybrid. PNGV watchers, however, say the car will not only meet the 80-mpg parameter but even exceed it.

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