Ford Model U interior
Much of the interior of the Model U concept vehicle is covered in a recyclable orange polyester fabric using the 'cradle-to-cradle' materials design philosophy.

Ford's Model U For Change

An exclusive EV World interview with Ford Model U project engineers.

By Bill Moore

One hundred years ago, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, the automobile that would not only propel his company into a position of industry dominance, but more importantly would transform 20th century life.

This year, the company he built will celebrate its centennial and as part of that celebration, the company looked both forward into the future and back into its past, creating what Ford Motor Company designers consider the successor to the venerable Model T.


Model U Photos

Ford calls that vehicle the Model U.

EV World asked three of the engineers who worked on this concept vehicle, which debuted at the 2003 North American International Auto Show this month, to talk about both the technology and philosophy embodied in the car. David Wagner is the project's technology manager. Arun Jaura is the project manager for the car's hydrogen power train. And Bob Natkins is the group leader for the hydrogen internal combustion engine that powers the hybrid-electric SUV.

What we learned and are pleased to report is that much of the exciting new technology that found its way into the Model U -- which takes its name from the next letter in the alphabet after "t" -- is not decades away, but is available now or in the very near future. This distinguishes it from the more futuristic concepts manifest in GM's Autonomy concept vehicle that was such a sensation at last year's Detroit auto show.

A Pragmatic Approach To the Future
Instead of exotic, interchangeable skateboards powered by a fuel cell, Ford chose a more pragmatic approach to green transportation, making use of a 100 years of manufacturing expertise in internal combustion engines, while integrating some very 21st century materials, not to mention a new hybrid-electric drive.

David Wagner explained that in looking forward into the 21st century, Ford Motor Company realizes that eventually declining fossil fuel reserves and escalating prices are going to become a critical issue that carmakers will have to seriously confront. When is still up for debate. However, hydrogen offers an energy carrier pathway beyond fossil fuels that promises a number of important advantages, the biggest being its potential renewability and non-polluting properties.

All three men stressed that they worked very closely with British Petroleum in dealing with hydrogen fuel issues, right down to the shape of the refueling nozzle and wireless, IR communication system that lets the car 'talk' to the refueling pump.

One of the very first issues the engine team had to address was the relatively low energy density of hydrogen. Wagner said that one of the program's early engineering efforts in 2001 produced only 50% of the power found in a comparable gasoline powered engine. By the time they unveiled the Model U, they had come up with a solution that has more power and performance than the gasoline version of the same engine with 99% fewer emissions.

The secret is combining supercharging with a hybrid-electric drive system. When compared to the 150 hp (117kW) 2.3 liter baseline engine found in Ford's new PZEV-rated Ford Focus, the hydrogen-fueled version produces 117 peak horsepower. The 300 volt, inductive electric motor that has been integrated into a conventional automatic transmission (replacing the standard torque converter) adds another 47 hp at peak.

The beauty of the Model U's hybrid-drive approach is its scalability, adaptability and relative low-cost because it makes use of existing components and manufacturing processes. The drive includes full regenerative braking, auto stop-start, power-assist and even an electric-only drive mode similar to the current version of the Prius. The system uses a 3.6 kW lithium-ion battery pack stored under the floor in the rear of the vehicle. The battery pack is fan-cooled. The power train is mounted transverse in the front of the vehicle which is front-wheel drive.

According to Bob Natkin, the hydrogen-fueled, internal combustion engine offers diesel-like fuel efficiency, improving fuel economy by 25% while raising brake thermal efficiency from 24% to 31%. While Ford still sees fuel cells as the ultimate replacement for the internal combustion engine, Natkin and his colleagues see the hydrogen IC engine as "bridging" technology. The company has been extensively bench testing the technology for a couple years, refining their it to the point that they are confident that they can produce an IC engine that dramatically cuts pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Natkin noted that while a conventional gasoline engine generates 350 grams of carbon dioxide (a principle greenhouse gas) per mile, their H2 engine produces only 1-2 grams per mile, which comes from the burning of lubricating oil in the engine. Without any EGR or reducing catalyst technology, the engine creates 50-75% less smog-forming nitrogen oxide. To reduce this even more, Ford is looking at adding both EGR and reducing catalysts. Altogether, the team estimates the H2 engine will cut regulated emissions by 99%.

Like electric vehicles, range is still an issue with hydrogen-fueled vehicles, be they fuel cell-powered or ICE-powered. The Model U uses 4 new 10,000 psi storage tanks capable of holding a total of 7 kilograms of hydrogen. Arun Jaura estimated that the SUV would get the equivalent to 45 mile per kilogram, effectively giving the car a range of 300 miles. (Note that one kilogram of hydrogen has the energy equivalency of one US gallon of gasoline). New "fast" fuel technology developed in cooperation with BP would enable consumers to refuel the car in 1 to 2 minutes. The aluminum and carbon fiber-wrapped tanks are housed under the floor pan

While the media and public have been quite taken by the Model U concept, especially its revolutionary voice-command and collision avoidance system, which includes a laser-based night vision system, the vehicle is not a working model. It is what the industry calls a "pusher" meaning it had to be pushed into Cobo Hall. But Ford does have working versions of the Model U drive train which has been incorporated into the Ford Focus station wagon platform. Company executives and engineers are driving these models now. According to the trio, the press will get our chance to drive it during Ford Centennial celebrations later this year.

Cradle-to-Cradle Materials
The hydrogen-fueled, supercharged, hybrid-drive IC engine is only part of the story of the Model U. As exciting as the power plant is, the components that make up the car foreshadow a completely new approach to car making. Based on the design philosophy espoused by Bill McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart, much of the material found in the Model U have been engineered to be either technical nutrients or biological nutrients. It's a material design philosophy that McDonough calls "cradle-to-cradle". [See EV World's interview with Bill McDonough].

Dave Wagner told EV World that the material used to cover the seats and door panels is a special polyester that can be recycled back into an identical polyester, something that no other synthetic has been engineered to do. The fabric is the brainchild of McDonough and Braungarts' product design firm, MBDC. Similarly, the material used in the roof fabric and floor matting is corn-based, though Wagner pointed out that his team hadn't completed the process of selecting the most environmentally-responsible dies, so this material isn't completely benign. When it is, it can be shred and turned into compost to fertilize the soil from which it was born.

There are also other bio-based materials in the car including soy-based resins and corn starch-based materials in the ties that replace the usual carbon black. According to Wagner, Ford's newest model Fiesta in Europe uses these new Goodyear tires and he thinks the technology will eventually find its way to the US.

Of course, Ford has been experimenting with bio-based materials for decades. Just after the Second World War, the company introduced a car that used hemp, then legal to cultivate as part of the war effort. Unfortunately, that technology never matured, but Wagner and his team are confident that the materials they are experimenting with will not share a similar fate. He pointed to the Fiesta tires as being technology that has already found its way into the marketplace.

The next Model U technology to find its way into production will most likely be the car's four-point seat belt system and its voice control system. Beyond that, he thinks the car's hybrid-electric transmission could see production in five years.

As for the hydrogen engine, its fate rests on the availability of hydrogen, a common but relatively expensive commodity usually derived from natural gas, another fossil fuel. The trio said they envision hydrogen eventually being extracted from water using renewable energy, a promising concept that has yet to prove its economic feasibility in the face of cheap fossil fuels. [See The Future of the Hydrogen Economy: Bright or Bleak?].

Still, there is cause for hope. Wagner pointed out that the hybrid-electric transmission can be bolted up to any type of engine, be it gasoline, diesel or hydrogen. So, the introduction of that technology will not be dependent on the widespread availability of hydrogen.

Before it ceased production of the car in 1927, Ford had built 15,458,781 Model T's. The remarkable "Tin Lizzy" transformed the world and brought personal transportation to the common man. It also brought along some unanticipated problems including smog and climate changing greenhouse gases. Whether its successor can live up to the same transformative role -- including repairing much of the damage the automobile has wrought -- will be up to Ford, the consumer and the unpredictable winds of change.

It will be an interesting 100 years.

Times Article Viewed: 17094
Published: 18-Jan-2003


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