By Michael F. Carmichael
Aug. 18, 2011
A few weeks ago visitors to the Pentagon found what looked like a modified Humvee parked in their courtyard. It was not an ordinary one, modified for some special task. It was a prototype, labeled FED Alpha, of a new breed of thinking in the military. It was there at the Pentagon, prior to going on field tests, to show the nation’s top brass - and hopefully members of Congress who provide the funding for this kind of thing - that a surprisingly small part of the Army’s R&D budget is being spent by some relatively young engineers on reducing our dependence on foreign oil by thinking outside the box.
FED stands for Fuel-Efficient Ground Vehicle Demonstrator and there are two versions: Alpha and Bravo (well, you can’t change military thinking completely.)
Alpha was developed using an innovative twist to the traditional process while Bravo was the creation of what is known as the “Monster Garage.” More on that later.
Carl Johnson is the team leader of the FED program. He explains that for the Alpha truck one of his first breaks with tradition was to take four of his engineers and place them on-site with Ricardo, his outside engineering contractor. Ricardo is an international engineering company that is headquartered in England and is a component of the tech sector of their version of the Dow Jones Industrials. They also have a strong presence in the Detroit area and do a lot of engineering projects for the “Detroit Three.”
“We call them our ’embedded engineers,'” Johnson says, adding with a chuckle that his group is composed of engineers, not creative types, so he used that phrase “for lack of a better term.” He continues with an explanation of how things usually go. “Normally, we let a contract, the contractor goes away and does the work, then comes back to us with a product.” By embedding his engineers, Johnson saved time and money by ensuring that the engineers at Ricardo were well versed in the unusual demands of a military truck in need of much better fuel economy than its predecessors.
The result is the FED Alpha, which not only meets all of the military requirements for safety, versatility and ease of use but also gets 70 percent better fuel economy than its predecessors in the field.
Johnson is asked why is there is an emphasis on fuel economy. “The standard answer,” he replies, “is that the most-delivered asset on the battlefield is fuel. And, if you think about the way an army operates, everything has to be carried with it. The less you have to carry, the less logistical footprint you make, the better.”
The army is beginning to focus on what Johnson explains is “the fully-burdened cost of fuel. What does it actually cost per gallon in Afghanistan, for instance, after all these people have to touch it? It’s in the hundreds of dollars.” Per gallon, he is asked to confirm. “Per gallon!” he reiterates with emphasis. “If you can reduce the amount of fuel you need then you need fewer fuel trucks, fewer support people - and those support people all need food and water and that takes fuel to deliver that - so if you can make things more efficient it makes the Army much easier to move.”
“The technologies behind the Alpha truck,” Johnson continues, “are a modern diesel engine - compared with the old diesel engines we’re using currently, the Alpha’s is more efficient - we have a six-speed transmission, where the Humvee has a three-speed transmission. It’s just state-of-the-art technology, with lightweight materials and custom-designed low-rolling-resistance tires. We did an energy-use analysis and a whole lot of the energy used in our current trucks goes into overcoming the resistance where the rubber meets the road. If you can decrease that you then increase your fuel economy. And that could be incorporated in current vehicles just by making a tire change.”
Johnson and his team, based in Warren, Mich., have done their homework. “All of the long-distance truck drivers are going to low-rolling-resistance tires,” he reports. “And those guys don’t spend a dime unless they can get a dollar back. Obviously, it would only impact our rolling resistance on-road, but a majority of our vehicles are on-road so it would pay itself back (to make the slight extra expense involved per tire.)”
Another fuel-saving feature of most of the military trucks will be that six-speed automatic transmission. Not only does it save fuel over the current three-speed but, as Johnson points out, “I don’t think most of these young soldiers could drive a stick shift. The transmission in the Alpha prototype is the same as in the one-ton Dodge pickup.”
That’s a point people don’t tend to think about. “When you look at our vehicles - and it’s the same with the concept cars the Big Three build - 80 percent of the inside parts are going to be off the shelf.”
The FED Alpha not only saves fuel on its own, it also generates electricity. “It has an integrated starter-generator that sits between the engine and the transmission. It can generate 30 KW of outboard power.” The idea behind that, Johnson explains, is that “everyone wants to plug in. If I have a really big radar system I need to power, normally that would require another vehicle with a fuel-burning generator on a trailer to run it - but I can do it with just the vehicle.”
While not quite as much fly-by-wire as today’s consumer cars and trucks - the steering is still mechanical and not electrical, for instance - the Alpha has a feedback mechanism built into the accelerator to let the driver know when he or she is operating at maximum fuel economy-¦ or not. “It will start to vibrate when you drive the vehicle inefficiently,” Johnson laughs. “The vehicle is constantly training you on how to drive it.”
That training can come to naught, it turns out, if the driver doesn’t learn. “The studies that we’ve done show that, while I can make the vehicle 70 percent more efficient, a bad driver can wipe out 35 percent of that.”
“At the end of the day I didn’t cut any corners. I didn’t roll out the University of Michigan solar car. This truck can still do the same things a Humvee can do - only 70 percent more efficiently. And I’m comparing it to the M1114 that was developed back when I was in elementary school.”
“We’re hoping the Bravo truck will be 80- to 90 percent more efficient [than current trucks,]” Johnson says.
The development of the Bravo truck used what Johnson calls the Monster Garage process. “We brought in a whole raft of subject matter experts from the military, from industry and academia. We sat around a room for a week and looked at technologies that could increase fuel efficiencies. We went away and came back after a month and put some of those technologies into concepts, the ones we thought would be the most fuel efficient. We ran those concepts through our modeling and simulations here at TARDEC [the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center] and determined that the variable-hybrid-electric was the most fuel-efficient of all those concepts.”
A separate contractor is currently building a prototype version of the FED Bravo.
Johnson is asked if that concept is like a Chevrolet Volt. “It is,” he responded, “but ours is a road-coupled parallel hybrid. That means the front axle is electrified, the rear axle is both mechanical and electrical. We worked with a local contractor, WTSI (World Technology Services Inc.) to do the design and build of the Bravo truck.”
What WTSI did, according to Johnson, is where traditional thinking gets left way behind. “They worked with the College for Creative Studies in mid-town Detroit. We actually had a class to design our truck.” You can still hear the amazement in his voice that such a thing could really happen. “We had 18 students, for one semester, to develop concepts for how they thought a parallel-hybrid-electric drive system ought to be packaged and put into a military truck.”
“We selected one of the 18 that we would build and take forward - and we hired that student to also do the interior. That was his ‘summer job,’ to develop the interior of the vehicle.”
That’s when a light went off. Johnson says, “these students are learning industrial design. We’re an R&D center; we’re all engineers and scientists. We think completely different than these guys do. We saw the benefit of having these students around. We hired one of them as a co-op here at TARDEC and now he’s transitioning to a full-time employee.”
The cost of the light going off was approximately $50,000 Johnson says, “It’s paid back itself many times over.”
“People pick on us and say ‘you’re stylizing the vehicle’ but they’re trivializing what these industrial designers do. They make sure the vehicle works with the person.”
Johnson compares what the CCS class, and industrial designers as a whole do, to “what Apple does. You pick up an Apple product and it does what you think it should do. Our trucks will not only look good, but they also will work correctly, and they should fit the person better. If you’ve ever ridden in a military vehicle it’s obvious that it was designed by engineers, not by industrial designers.”
A further eye-opener for Johnson was that he “got 18 different concepts in 16 weeks for $50,000. It was amazing. Engineers from TARDEC and WTSI met with the students every week. We would tell them ‘you can’t quite do this because you have to package for this-¦’ so by the time we got to the end we had 18 realistic concepts that we could have built.”
“When we first brought the students to our facility their initial reaction was how poorly military vehicles are designed from a user standpoint. They were impressed by how big and heavy our vehicles are and how difficult it is to incorporate industrial design concepts. When they were back on campus our engineers sat side-by-side with them on their design computers and showed them what would and wouldn’t work.”
“Not only did the students get a lot out of the process but we got a lot out of it,” Johnson continues. “There was one design that I really liked that didn’t even finish in the top three, but the decision is so subjective. The design met all the goals of the package but it came down to someone saying ‘I like this one better than that one.’ Their whole career is going to be like that.”
The Bravo concept truck is being constructed and is scheduled to be completed near the end of the year.