Prodigy Points Way To Ford's Future
June 2000 -- The Prodigy, Ford Motor Company's PNGV hybrid-electric concept vehicle, has a distinctive European-touring-car-on-steroids presence about it that, at least for me, got my pulse racing a bit faster. But as Bob Culver points out, its really what's under the hood of the Prodigy that he's proudest of, its small 1.2 liter CIDI (compression ignition direct injection) engine and its electric drive train. He points out that the CIDI engine is "just a fancy term" for a modern, very clean, very efficient, high-performance diesel engine.
For our new readers who might not be familiar with the concept of hybrid-electric drive systems, the advantage is that you can reduce the size -- and thereby the emissions -- of the internal combustion engine by letting the electric motor/generator and battery packs handle start-up, acceleration and slow-down. When the vehicle is at rest, the CIDI engine on the Prodigy is shut down, also improving fuel economy. In essence, the vehicle has two drive systems, which while it adds to its overall complexity and cost, it also can result in dramatic improvements in performance and efficiency. The Prodigy is rated at an amazing 70 mpg or 3.0 liters per 100 km.
Culver observed that a conventional car uses 11% of its fuel when its stopped and at idle according to the EPA conservative urban driving cycle. He thinks in the real world, this number may actually be even higher. "If you can shut the power off when you're not using it, its a boost in fuel economy," he observed.
"The Prodigy doesn't stop there. It really has a whole total systems approach at getting at the economy numbers... Light weight, aerodynamic, low-rolling resistance tires, a lot of aero features on the car including (miniature video) cameras instead of outside mirrors. All this puts together to give you nearly 80 mpg on a gallon of diesel, which is about 72 miles energy equivalent to a gallon of gasoline."
No Compromise Allowed
Culver explained that from the outset, Ford's Prodigy development team established a "no compromise" design strategy meaning, "no compromise to what the customer expects." This translates into a vehicle with the same interior cabin size as a full-sized Ford Taurus, including in Culver's words "unbelievable trunk space." From the performance perspective, he said the Prodigy is identical to a full-sized, five passenger family sedan.
He also explained that he felt customers would quickly get used to the "engine-off" feature which is admittedly a bit unnerving because that reassuring vibration of the engine vanishes.
He went on to elaborate on the goals of the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle, PNGV for short. He said its primary goal was to develop a full size passenger car that could deliver 3 times the fuel economy of the average passenger car in 1993 or about 80 mpg. He said that while the Prodigy didn't quiet reach this goal, for a "mid-term" report card, he'd give his team an A or A+ for the total package they put together.
"We're not all the way there yet," he admitted. "I am not trying to say we've got everything solved and we're ready to bring all these technologies to market today, but it is meant to be a proof of concept and I think it did exactly that."
Culver said he couldn't discuss product plans beyond what's already been announced. (Ford has said it will offer a hybrid-electric version of its new Escape SUV for the 2003 model year). However, he did indicate that many of the technologies that are embodied in the Prodigy may ultimately find their way into tomorrow's production cars and trucks.
He explained that when PNGV was started, full-sized passenger cars were the heart of Ford's market. Their best-selling Taurus even toppled the Honda Accord briefly in the 1990s as America's number one selling passenger car. The advantage of starting with this class of automobile, he said, was that it allows Ford to scale up or down the technologies, applying them to other product lines. "We want to make these technologies applicable to all our car lines."
"You may not see all of these technologies available in a single vehicle called the Prodigy at any near time in the future, but what you will see is technologies -- as we make the business case for them -- spinning off to whatever segment seems to be the most appropriate at the time," he stated.
He added that while the Escape is the first announced HEV program in North America, it won't offer three times the fuel economy of the conventionally-powered Escape because not all the technologies that would that possible are currently .
How Do You Spend $58 Million Dollars? When the Prodigy was first unveiled at the opening of the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last January, the automotive press reported that it cost Ford $58 million dollars. Culver said that Ford doesn't discuss its development costs and he's not sure where that number came from.
However, he was willing to discuss where Ford spent some of its development dollars on the Prodigy starting with its Diata CIDI engine, which he said is a "built-from-the-ground-up", proprietary Ford design.
He added that Ford styling engineers spent time on the design of the vehicle so that it would be efficient, but not so "space-agey" looking that there was not chance it would ever go into production.
"We wanted to put all the aerodynamic features in it, put all the styling features of a next generation car... and still have all the advanced technology under the hood."
The Prodigy has an all-aluminum body including the structure and exterior body panels.
Ford Hybrid-Drive Is Market Ready
Of all the innovative technologies found in the Prodigy, Culver believes the hybrid-electric drive train is the most ready for introduction into the marketplace. This includes not only the Diata diesel engine, but its combined starter/generator/alternator electric motor system. This system not only starts the CIDI engine, but allows the recapture of braking energy through its regenerative braking system. It also supplies additional power to the wheels, supplementing the power output of the small diesel engine. This is the technology that is most production-ready and will find its way into the 2003 Escape SUV.
The next most promising candidates for inclusion in tomorrow's cars are light weight materials. "Every day they come closer to being affordable," Culver reported. He added that believes Ford uses more aluminum than any other carmaker in the world and that the company is looking for ways to increase its use of this weight-saving material.
"I think you have to look at every one of these technologies on an individual application, for the individual segment and say, can we make a business case on this. And the hybrid configuration is the one that makes the most sense now. If you plot all these technologies on a 'bang-for-the-buck' kind of curve, that's one that makes a lot of sense."
Confronting The Cost Constraints
Culver explained that there are still significant cost hurdles to be overcome. For example while using aluminum reduces the mass of a vehicle in half, aluminum still costs four times what steel does. This means car makers still would have twice the cost of metal in the vehicle.
"To make aluminum widely applicable where its a no-cost-to-the-customer kind-of-a-thing aluminum prices have to come down and we're looking at that in every aspect," he said. "From how you get the metal out of the ground, the raw ore, how you process it, to how we make it into sheet to how we handle it inside our own plants, how we join it. Every aspect of that whole process is being studied and being researched. And progress is being made daily on these things. Every day we see another tenth of a cent come off the price of aluminum. That's the kind of things we have to look at."
Is Anyone Paying Attention To Fuel Economy?
Turning to the topic of American's buying ever-larger, heavier, less fuel-efficient vehicles, Culver said that when PNGV started, there were naysayers who said customers wouldn't be interested in fuel economy. He now thinks the market is beginning to have second thoughts about this and some are even starting to ask why Detroit doesn't have any fuel-efficient vehicles available.
"From my point of view, this is very personal, these technologies are at the right place at the right time. I don't think we could have been quite so lucky to have just announced an escape hybrid program and gas prices almost double over the last 12 months. I think the time is right and the market will change. We're starting to see more attention, at least, when people come in, they're starting to look at the window stickers a little bit more and we'd better be there with a product that satisfies those people that are really concerned about it."
Educating The Public
While Culver disputed my assertion that car companies like Ford have "enormous" marketing clout by pointing to the failure of the Edsel in the 1950's, he did agree that his industry does have a responsibility to make consumers more aware of the environmental impact of their vehicle purchases. He pointed to Ford's sponsorship of the recent Time magazine special Earth Day issue. The company has also partnered with the National Energy Education Foundation to co-develop a special program for middle schools on energy transformation. This program was the outgrowth of a video created for the Detroit Auto Show on how hybrid vehicles work.
"Those are the kinds of things that we think are the right things to do and we'll continue to do them."
Culver said that Ford believes that customers tell it what they want, rather than the company, through its advertising, swaying the marketplace. "We want to understand what the customer wants on a very visceral... elemental understanding what the customer actually wants, maybe not just what they fill out on survey or respond to a telephone interview, but what we think the customer really wants and we think we need to be there with the products, the technologies that the customer will want and will pay for."
"Certainly, I believe it's the customer that decides the market," he said. "Certainly not the car companies through their advertising."
Lessons Learned From PNGV
Bob Culver said that he feels Ford has learned a lot from its participation in the PNGV program starting with the recognition that it could learn a lot from all the various partners in the program.
"I think when we first got together there was a lot of staring across the table and a lot of feeling that I knew everything and you don't know anything about my business and visa versa. I think we're to the point now we've agree to a common goal. We work very well with the national laboratories, and its really about aligning resources and focusing and leveraging. I think its a very powerful tool, especially in these technologies we call 'pre-competitive' kinds of basic, fundamental technologies."
"Certainly you saw that this is not the US government getting into building cars," he continued. It's about developing technologies that then the individual car companies will take and do extremely different but yet very similar kinds of technology implementation in their own vehicles. If it was all so simple, we'd just get together and decided how we're going to build the next car, the Prodigy, Precept and ESX3 would all look and function exactly the same. Yet, they're very not only from a styling point of view but from a fundamental construction and technology implementation point of view."
Emissions or High Mileage?
Culver explained that while PNGV has tried to focus on both increased fuel economy and reduced emissions, the emphasis has been more on the former than the later. He said that when PNGV was formed, it was assumed that there would be tougher emissions standards applied on the future and the car companies tried to anticipate what that standard would be by the year 2000. It turned out that they underestimated the EPA's proposed Tier II standard by an "order of magnitude."
"Certainly that's changed the way we're looking at things and one of the technical hurdles we're going to have to overcome to bring these products to market is the emissions. The diesels of today are nothing like the diesels of the 1970s that we had during the oil shocks. These are modern, very clean, very quiet, very efficient, very powerful engines that are much, much better than the diesels we had in 1970. That's one of the reasons we try to call them CIDIs, because it is so different than the diesel engine many of us were familiar with 25 years ago, that we don't even like to use the same word to describe it."
He continued by saying, "emissions are much, much better. They're cleaner than gasoline engines are today, but new Tier II requirements are going to push us down to a level that will require a lot of innovation to get over to that level by 2004."
"So, I think the answer is yes. What would you rather have, fuel economy or emissions? The answer is yes. We really need to do both. Certainly, I think we need a balanced approach to that. Which is more important? Improved emissions or improved fuel economy? I think that's a good topic to debate and there's a lot of debate going on that. And as we approach it, we really need to look at the total system, and that total system includes the fuel we use."
He said there has been a major effort undertaken to reduce the sulfur in fuel and that this will help reduce harmful emissions. The auto industry and fuel industry are working on developing even cleaner burning fuels.
Cars In 2010
Ford Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. has stated that he sees 20% of the vehicles on the road in 2010 being hybrid-electrics so I asked Bob Culver what Ford product strategists see those vehicles being like in 10 years time.
He responded that he hope that would not look much different than today's cars in terms of their appearance and functionality. "I think we need to keep the customer in mind as we go forward with all these technologies, and that is give the customer the convenient, the comfort, the utility that they expect out of their vehicles today. And I think that has to be the foremost factor in looking forward."
"But at the same time, I think we can achieve those goals of 20% hybrids in doing that, and the stop-start, for example can be relatively transparent to the customer and I think it will be even more so by the time we get to 2010. So I think we'll start seeing some of those technologies integrated into vehicles where the customer will get the benefits but not sacrifice anything at the same time."
He also eventually sees the price of light weight materials reaching a parody with steel resulting in lighter vehicles. He also sees the introduction of panoramic video camera displays replacing review mirrors as the price of that technology comes down.
He said he thinks there will be a gradual implementation of Prodigy-like technologies over the coming decade. "You won't wake up someday and see every has a hybrid vehicle out there. It will be very gradual. I think its strategic in focus and we're matching towards that goal."
Culver concluded by stating that fuel cells suffer from an even high cost penalty than hybrid systems, though he said the industry has made tremendous progress in cost reductions, cutting their cost by a factor of 10 in just 3 years time. However before fuel cells become cost competitive, their cost must be reduced by another factor of 10.
He thinks an even more critical debate that needs to take place is what fuel will we use to power these devices, because depending on the fuel, we may have to either revamp or completely restructure our current gasoline-based fueling infrastructure.
"Is it going to be hydrogen? Is it going to be some type of fuel that is reformed onboard the vehicle," he asked rhetorically. "I think those are some issue that are really long range in focus and really need to be addressed today."
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