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2001 Michelin Challenge Bibendum

Contributing editor reviews major advanced transportation event.

By Robert Oberhand

My visit to the 2001 Michelin Challenge Bibendum was truly an eye-opener, and the most significant advanced transportation event of my experience. Staged by worldwide tire manufacturer Michelin, it was ambitious, comprehensive, and well thought out. The Challenge Bibendum helped move technologically advanced cleaner vehicles one step closer to marketability.

Much more than a static display, the four-day event emphasized competition in driving performance, endurance, fuel efficiency, emissions, and noise levels. On day two, Saturday, October 27, officials conducted measured testing at the California Speedway in Fontana, (near Los Angeles); a road rally to Las Vegas followed the next day.

This event moved a blue-chip array of state-of-the-art demonstration vehicles out of the laboratory and onto the racetrack and the public highways. It was exciting to see so many technologically advanced vehicles in action at the same time and place, after my previous encounters have been mostly limited to static displays and media coverage.

A selection of the nine fuel cell vehicles entered indicates the quality of the field, including the 2000 Mercedes Benz Necar, the Toyota FCHV-4, the 2000 GM-Opel Zafira, 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe and the Ford P2000 sedan.

The total of 51 entries included nine EVs, six hybrids, five diesels, seven natural gas vehicles, two hydrogen internal combustion vehicles, one propane vehicle, and others. Documentation of the event and competition results can be found at http://www.challengebibendum.com.

A significant step ahead

The coming together of so many notable cars produced a critical mass of working advanced technology, lending weight to the argument that real progress is being made toward sustainable marketability of cleaner transportation products. This is, after all, the ultimate justification for the substantial efforts and expenditures being made on behalf of developing green transportation technology. With that in mind, the organizers of Challenge Bibendum deserve extra credit. They created an event that not only documented progress but, by virtue of the competition, became a noteworthy step in that progress.

The competition alone would have been enough to make this a landmark event. But there was even more on hand to deepen its importance. The organizers brought in additional vehicles that, though not in the competition, had good reason to be displayed with the Challenge entrants.

For example, a selection of trucks and buses demonstrated key trends in cleaner solutions for heavy-duty vehicles. Companies demonstrated hydrogen generation and fueling. A real showstopper was a drive-by-wire car that opened a window to the future of electronic steering and control functions, about which you could say, "Look, Ma, no pedals." Details on these topics appear later in this article.

Impressions of impressive vehicles

My comments are based on what I experienced at the Friday kick off at the downtown Los Angeles headquarters of the Automobile Club of Southern California and during the next day's track event in Fontana. I did not join the rally on Sunday to Las Vegas, nor did I attend Monday's "Transportation Transformation" conference on Sustainability -- which in itself had an impressive agenda of topics and guest speakers. It was staged by the Challenge in conjunction with the auto industry's SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) expo.

The track day included 1- and 3-mile closed-course "City Drive" opportunities, where some entered vehicles and several additional vehicles were available for ride and drive. My first impression was that I had entered "green vehicle heaven." I was able to jump quickly between the BMW 12-cylinder 7-series hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine (ICE) luxury sedan, Toyota's new Estima 4-wheel-drive hybrid minivan (now in production for the Japan market only), Toyota's e-com 2-seat EV, the Nissan Hypermini EV personal transport vehicle, and a 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe fuel cell concept.

Again, the overall impression was of a critical mass of advanced greener vehicles progressing toward real products, and that the concept vehicles drove and handled credibly, side-by-side with production cars. The Toyota FCHV-4 fuel cell vehicle was notable for its quiet ride, due in part to the efforts developers have made to dampen and reduce compressor noise.

Reflecting the broad spectrum of vehicle power sources in the event, diesel had a significant presence, in both cars and heavy-duty trucks. The Westport Innovations entry demonstrated the potential to combine the high fuel efficiency of diesel cycle with the lower emissions of natural gas in a passenger vehicle. Westport, a Canadian company that has partnered with Cummins to to produce natural gas-fueled diesel engines for heavy-duty trucks, entered a 2000 Ford Focus Estate with a stock automobile diesel engine that had been modified with their natural gas technology.

Another crossover of technology from heavy-duty diesel to light-duty was represented by the Ford entry of a diesel-powered Focus. It ran on standard diesel fuel, but was equipped with a NOx-reducing urea-based exhaust aftertreatment system. Urea technology is being developed primarily to reduce emissions of heavy-duty diesel engines. The Focus received an "A" rating in the Challenge's emissions competition -- the only non-fuel-cell car to do so. Pretty impressive for a diesel car!

Fuel cells appeared in heavy-duty vehicles as sources of both motive and auxiliary power. An XCELLSIS "ZEbus" hydrogen-powered full-size fuel cell transit bus took a break from its duty as a working demonstration vehicle of Sunline Transit in Palm Desert, California. The transit agency has a high level of commitment to hydrogen power, both in fuel cells and internal combustion (some Sunline ICE vehicles run on "hythane," a blend of hydrogen and natural gas.)

Freightliner, the heavy-duty truck maker, exhibited a demonstration auxiliary power unit for truck tractors featuring Ballard fuel cells. It eliminates the need to idle the engine to power the cabin's electrical appliances. Fuel cells represent one possible solution for the pollution, noise, and waste of fuel caused by extended diesel truck engine idling -- familiar to anyone who has visited an interstate highway rest area at night.

Issues of hydrogen generation and infrastructure were also addressed at Fontana, most interestingly by the Stuart company, which demonstrated its Personal Fuel Appliance (PFA). Perhaps somewhat smaller than a washing machine, the PFA electrolyzes water into hydrogen and oxygen, compresses the hydrogen, and dispenses it right into a vehicle's fuel tank -- all on the fly. The unit needs only a 220-volt electric connection and a water supply to start pumping pure hydrogen.

One might question the efficiency of burning fossil fuel at a power plant to generate electricity that is used to electrolyze water and compress the resulting hydrogen, which is then consumed in a vehicle. Yet there is no denying the usefulness of being able to safely generate hydrogen at virtually any location served by standard utilities.

While obviously not the solution for the hydrogen infrastructure, the PFA could play an enabling role to help jump-start it. Stuart foresees a consumer product by 2008 that will be smaller than the unit demonstrated at the Challenge.

Hybrid vehicles that entered the competition were mostly production models: the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, and Toyota Estima. The 2001 "L3," initially developed at San Diego State University, was a notable concept hybrid vehicle. It uses a stock European-model Volkswagen direct-injection diesel engine plus electric power controls and motor from AC Propulsion (maker of the tzero EV sports car, also at the City Drive). A two-speed transmission developed in-house allows motive power from both the engine and the motor to drive the wheels, making the L3 a "parallel" hybrid. The look of this stylish 2-seat sports coupe says excitement and performance.

Hybrid systems also made an appearance with General Motors' Allison Transmission division's Ev50 hybrid electric drive in a full-size working transit bus. Hybrid electric is one of the most promising technologies in heavy-duty vehicles for reducing fuel use and pollution while maintaining needed levels of performance. Allison has a built-in advantage in the heavy-duty hybrid market, being a division of the world's largest automaker with substantial resources for R&D, training, and distribution.

It is notable that only one concept EV -- Nissan's Hypermini -- was entered in the competition. Challenge Bibendum entrants were mostly built by major OEMs, whose focus has turned more toward demonstrating hybrids and fuel cells than EVs. Neighborhood and station vehicles, such as the Ford Think Neighbor, the Hypermini, and Toyota's e-com (all of which were at California Speedway) seem to be at the forefront of thinking and development in OEM EVs.

The most radical appearance was the U.S. introduction of the "Filo" concept car, which uses electric drive-by-wire controls and systems for all steering, braking, and shifting functions.

Co-created by Swedish automotive/aerospace company SKF and the legendary Italian car design studio Bertone, Filo is futuristic in almost every sense. More than a demonstration of drive-by-wire technology, it offers a new concept of living space within a vehicle. Filo's creators have used electronic controls plus compact electric motors and gearing systems to dispense with the traditional steering column, pedals, mechanical links, and hydraulics.

With those changes, they had unprecedented freedom to rethink interior space, and did so in the image of a living room. Seats are sofa-like. A footrest surface runs the length of the front at floor level. Sound, video, communications, and navigation systems are integrated into seat and steering surfaces. The clean, stealthy, faceted exterior lines reflect new thinking and Bertone high style.

SKF Steering Wheel The steering wheel has been replaced by a "binnacle," which houses the control surfaces and information panel.

Although the binnacle superficially resembles a steering wheel, the experience of using it to drive Filo is definitely unlike anything that has come before. You accelerate by rotating one or both handgrips, sort of like a motorcycle, and brake by squeezing the same grips. Gears shift up or down by pressing a "+" or "-" button on the binnacle. Steering is actuated not by turning the binnacle like a steering wheel, but by sliding the hand grip units in opposite (slightly arcing) "up-down" directions around the binnacle's central panel. Actuators in the hand grips offer resistance to give real-time experiential "road" feedback.

The experience of driving Filo involved a few moments of reorientation from the norm, but, quickly became comfortable. It was a thrilling view into the future, kind of halfway between normal driving and playing a video game.

Credit to the organizers

My final impression is of the event itself and its organizers. Speaking to the press, Michelin Group CEO Edouard Michelin (whose great-grandfather co-founded the company) reminded the audience that competition is part of his company's heritage and is important to the continual development of improved products. He also made the point that Michelin has published road and travel guides for more than ninety years, a long-term commitment to improving transportation outside the core business of tires.

Moreover, he made it clear that these aspects of the company culture are in harmony with the creation and staging of Challenge Bibendum. Centered on competition, the event spurs innovation by measuring performance in the real-world demands of endurance, handling, and driving range. It facilitates forward progress in transportation by taking an incremental step toward the long-term marketability of greener products.

Mr. Michelin positioned his company as an appropriate sponsor of the competition -- global in scope, but a "neutral" player, as it is not a car manufacturer. He was a warm and engaging speaker who clearly articulated his company's mission with passion and a sense of fun.

Next year's Challenge will be held in Europe, as were the first two, beginning in 1998. Tentative plans are to have it return to the U.S. in 2003.

Robert Oberhand is a communications consultant and publisher on transportation and energy topics, focusing on advanced and environmental technology. He is the researcher and writer of WestStart/CALSTART's 100+ page 2001 trend analysis, "Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicles: Analyzing Trends in Advanced Technologies and Fuels," available at www.calstart.org. Comments on this article are welcome; e-mail to ro@oberhand.com.

Times Article Viewed: 7011
Published: 10-Nov-2001

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