By Bill Moore
DaimlerChrysler chose the 2001 Los Angeles International Auto Show to debut the PowerBox concept vehicle. Clearly, the California ZEV mandate was on their mind. As adopted by the Air Resource Board, the mandate now allows carmakers like DaimlerChrysler to substitute a new class of vehicle, called an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) for pure battery electric vehicles, long considered the only viable alternative to meeting the zero emission requirement.
By combining the low-emission properties of compressed natural gas and the range-extending potential of the company's "Through-the-road" hybrid system, DaimlerChrysler demonstrated it could come tantalizingly close to building a consumer-acceptable sport utility vehicle that meets the AT-PZEV requirement. The PowerBox already meets California's SULEV (super-ultra low emission vehicle) standards. Only two other fossil fuel-powered vehicles do this: the California version of the 2001 Sentra and the Toyota Prius, both small, compact-class vehicles.
After its eye-catching styling, what LA Auto Show visitors found appealing about the PowerBox concept SUV was its ability to provide all the amenities and performance demanded by SUV owners, while offering improved fuel economy and dramatically lower tailpipe emissions.
Becoming Sensitive To Fuel Economy
"As you know today, we all talk about fuel economy and there are cars out there today that get forty to fifty miles per gallon, but they're the size of your desk and no ones going out and buying them," Ken Mack stated as we resumed our interview for EVWorld.
"We have a responsibility to meet market demands and right now, whether we like it or not, the market demands that we like sport utilities and we like the larger vehicles over the small vehicles. In fact, I think it's an important point that sometimes gets missed is people will say, 'Why don't you concentrate on small cars versus big cars?'
"Let me give you an example of why we haven't done that," Mack continued. "Assume you travel 12,000 miles a year and you have a sport utility and you get 15 miles per gallon, so you take about 800 gallons (of gasoline). Now, if I can (get) a 20 per cent improvement from 15 mpg to 18 mpg, now you are going to use only 667 gallons. You'll save 133 gallons. If I took a small car that got 25 mpg and I achieved a 20% improvement to 30 mpg that would result from 480 gallons to 400 gallons, or only 80 gallons saved. So, the corporate focus is. . . whether we like it or not the market likes big vehicles. We've found out through work we're doing now that environmental-wise, I can save more gallons in the big cars than I can in the small cars."
Of course, those "big cars" Mack refers to are still using 267 more gallons annually, than the smaller, more efficient vehicles, but since American consumers seem oblivious to the environmental impact of their auto buying habits, saving an additional 133 gallons per vehicle shouldn't be dismissed out-of-hand, either. And the 60% improvement in fuel efficiency offered by the PowerBox would be an even more welcome development than the 20% target Mack used.
As Richard Schaum, DaimlerChrysler's Executive Vice President, Product Development & Quality observed at the vehicle's unveiling, "If every SUV sold in this country were equipped with this hybrid propulsion system, customers would save more than 142 million gallons (538 million liters) of gasoline per year." At this rate, there would be little need to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
Because of a combination of increased consumer demand, environmental regulations and bottlenecks in the refinery process, gasoline prices in the US this summer are expected to top $2 a gallon (they have already in some parts of the country) and could possibly go as high as $3. As a result, Mack expects American consumers are going to become more "sensitive" to the issue of fuel economy than they have in the recent past.
(Editor's note: I am now getting 58.2 mpg in my Honda Insight, which I use to commute 25 miles round trip to and from the office. This month, April 2001, I commuted all month on a single 10 gallon tank-full of gasoline. I spent a grand total of $13.50 on fuel for the entire month!)
"I think the issue now, versus in the past, is there's still fuel out there versus in the past when we had the big crunch; there wasn't any fuel. The gas stations were shut down. And that was the real panic," Mack said. He mentioned a friend of his who bought such a small car in response to the 70s oil embargoes that it took two trips to get his family to church on Sunday.
Mack believes we'll see gasoline prices continue to fluctuate up and down as they have historically. "I think people will sit down now and say, 'Well, twenty-five cents more. What is that a week? Let's make it, that's five dollars more a week. They're more concerned about , 'Am I stuck where I can't get fuel alone?' But (that) doesn't say we (shouldn't) have a conscientious view of this and try to work towards it. The industry can't, overnight, bring out the 100 mpg car. So we work through this. I don't think people will jump ship from the sport utility down to the little tiny car."
Building An Affordable Hybrid
One of the strongest arguments for DaimlerChrysler's "through-the-road" approach to hybrid-electric drive is its lower production costs relative to other possible hybrid architectures. In effect what the company has done is eliminate many of the costly components associated with a typical 4WD vehicle, substituting in their place a 70 hp (52kW) Siemens Automotive electric motor to drive the front axle and a conventional V-6 engine to drive the rear axle. The only connection between the two drive systems is through-the-road". Mack explained how this approached saves the company money.
|3D illustration of PowerBox chassis and hybrid-electric drive layout.|
"The reason we did this 'through-the-road' hybrid system was because if you take 4WD vehicle today, the first thing we did was we took the V-8 out and replace it by a V-6. So, I took more money out than I put back in. Then we took out the transfer case and the front differential and driveshaft and we took that out. All I do then is add an electric motor back and battery pack and controller. I am somewhat simplifying it, but if you do a through the road system it allows you to take some costs out and offset the costs you put back in."
The electric drive side of the design makes use of regenerative braking on the front wheels and a NiMH battery pack in the concept vehicle, though eventually the company sees this being replaced by lithium ion at some point in the future. The controller and battery pack are located between the vehicle frame, under the passenger compartment.
While there doesn't appear to be any provision at this point for a ZEV-only operational mode on the vehicle, the "through-the-road" system would easily lend itself to this approach with a sufficiently large battery pack, something lithium ion would provide. While neither Mack nor company press releases discuss it, we assume the ICE engine also provides some battery pack recharging capability besides that provided by regenerative braking.
Are Financial Woes Affecting R&D?
EV World asked Mack if recent cost cutting measures at DaimlerChrysler had impacted product development, especially on advanced systems like the PowerBox.
"I've been with Chrysler since 1967. I've seen all the ups and downs. There's still a core of people, I call the 'old Chrysler people', and the last time we went through a downturn we said we were not going to defer product because you can't defer product. So we aren't doing that to save the money. We're trying to be more efficient at what we're doing. Specifically at Liberty & Technical Affairs we're being selective, but we aren't going to make trade-offs on long-term benefits for short-term gains."
Mack added that the company is confident enough in the viability of the "through-the-road" hybrid concept that it created a new HEV platform headed up by a new vice president, Dr. Larry Oswald. The first product developed by this new platform line will be the Dodge Durango HEV.
Hybrids As Interim Solutions
When history of the automobile in the 21 st century is written, it will be DaimlerBenz -- now known as DaimlerChrysler -- that will be remembered as the first carmaker to seriously pursue the promise of fuel cell technology. It would be DaimlerBenz's investment in a small Vancouver R&D company that would someday make Ballard a household name, at least among the investment community. It is estimated the DaimlerChrysler has spent at least $1 billion on fuel cell development to date. It expects to spend another $1 billion bringing fuel cell vehicles to market, starting in 2003 with a demonstration fleet of transit buses to be deployed in various cities around the world including London and Perth, Australia.
So, with all the money and effort being spent on fuel cells, where do programs like the PowerBox and the Durango HEV fit? We asked Mack this question.
"It's an interim step," he responded. "There's a lot of work going on (on fuel cells). It's further out. It shows promise, but there's an awful lot of work to be done." He pointed out that the question of which fuel to use hasn't yet be settled. Unlike fuel cell buses that can be centrally fueled with either hydrogen or methanol, there isn't yet a consensus on which fuel to use for fuel cell passenger cars. Until there is and the infrastructure can be built or modified, hybrid-electric vehicles like the PowerBox offer the next best alternative.
Will PowerBox Be The Next Home Run?
Is there a chance that the PowerBox "through-the-road" hybrid might someday go into production? Mack replied that while he couldn't reveal DaimlerChrysler's production plans he offered this intriguing possibility.
"When you look at the auto shows and you look at the concept cars they have, there's a pattern there. First of all, we had the Viper. It was a concept car. It went into production. The Prowler was a concept car. It went into production. By the way, both of those are sort of like rolling laboratories, one of them for the aluminum expertise, one for the plastic. So, you look at some of the cars, even the new Liberty that's out. There is a precursor to that that says what is going to happen. You've seen the PowerBox so I'll let your imagination wonder."
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