The temperature hovers around 120 degrees at the Arsenal of Democracy. Michael Reid keeps up the heat in the laboratory as he tests a Bradley fighting vehicle commonly used under extreme conditions.
Reid, director of vehicle-testing labs at the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan, leads a staff that also is testing a system to turn exhaust heat into electricity to power a tank’s computer. In time, consumers might see similar fuel-saving technology -- currently consumers’ No. 1 concern -- in a Chevy Malibu or Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The auto industry has a long tradition of adapting military technology to improve passenger cars for civilians, said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst in Boston who specializes in automotive history.
“Just about any material used in a passenger car was probably improved with military research,” he said.
Boosting fuel economy has become a high priority for automakers that face a doubling of efficiency standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025 or face fines. Among U.S. car-shoppers’ priorities this year, mileage soared to the top of the list, surpassing reliability, a good deal and exterior styling, according to a survey by researcher J.D. Power & Associates.
All of the major automakers devote billions of dollars to research fuel efficiency and alternative technology. The military is focusing on many of the same ideas at the $60 million lab, such as batteries that use different chemical combinations for longer range and perfecting fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity without pollution.
Arsenal of Democracy
The military research at Tardec, 17 miles (27 km) north of General Motors Co.’s Detroit headquarters, offers the possibility of breakthroughs that may also someday benefit Ford and Chevy cars and trucks. The site has long been an engine of progress.
The U.S. Army contracted with then-Chrysler Corp. in August 1940 to create the country’s first government-owned, contractor-operated factory at the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant in Warren -- later heralded as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” The first prototype tank was finished in April 1941, according to the official history of the facility.
GM improved Cadillac’s automatic transmissions as part of a program making M-5 light tanks during World War II, said Wolkonowicz, the auto historian. Each tank was powered by two Cadillac engines and a pair of automatic transmissions, and the wartime work meant postwar Cadillacs had far fewer defects, he said.
Battlefields to Driveways
Four-wheel drive systems in go-anywhere Jeeps made their way from military use to American driveways, and improved fuel quality on the battlefields led to cleaner-burning passenger cars after the war, he said.
The Arsenal also built M47 tanks for the Korean War and M113 armored personnel carriers for Vietnam as well as Cold War-era M-60 Patton tanks. In 1976, it started making the M1 Abrams, the main battle tank that was used in the Gulf wars. Research and development continued after vehicle production at the site ended in 1996.
Last month, the U.S. Army opened eight new laboratories at the 30,000-square-foot (2,800 square meters) Tardec Ground Systems Power and Energy Laboratory complex. There, the military’s engineers can evaluate individual components and then assemble them into full vehicles to see how they work together, Reid said. The military will work with industry and academic experts to design tests, he said.
In one of those labs, a researcher demonstrates a sensor that can take body warmth and convert it to electricity. The idea is to use that technology to take all the heat from a vehicle’s exhaust system and turn it into energy to recharge batteries or run onboard computers.
Putting such a converter with the muffler would help recapture some of the 30 percent of energy that is typically wasted, researchers said.
“We’re trying to do anything we can to reduce the thermal loading on a vehicle,” because heat damages equipment and wastes precious fuel, said Reid.
More-efficient cooling means better durability for the 60,000-pound (27,000 kg) war machine, just as it does for a 5,000-pound Ford F-150 pickup. For the Army, getting more efficient means sending soldiers on fewer dangerous fuel convoys.
GM is already studying whether it may be able to work on hydrogen fuel cell tests at the facility, said Mary Beth Stanek, GM’s director of federal environmental and energy regulatory affairs, who has toured the facility.
“It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” she said. “And with the proximity, we should be able to leverage these assets for the whole auto industry.”
GM already works with the military on projects such as the fleet of fuel-cell-powered vehicles that the U.S. Department of Defense is testing in Hawaii, Stanek said.
The primary goal of all the research at the new Tardec labs is to find ways to make vehicles more efficient, less complex and more durable, so that military personnel have less need to repair them when they are in combat or far from support operations, Reid said.
The Tardec facility includes special testing sites to experiment on fuel cells, which use hydrogen or another fuel to create electricity, as well as electric-vehicle batteries such as the advanced lithium-ion technology being introduced in passenger cars such as the Chevrolet Volt, Reid said.
Another laboratory can test air filtration for engines under extreme conditions and extend a powertrain’s life, Reid said.
At the center of the other research operations is the Power and Energy Vehicle Environmental Lab, which can simulate full-speed operation of a vehicle with as many as 10 wheels from 60 degrees below zero to 160 degrees above -- or “from Yuma to Antarctica in a day,” Reid said.
“The military operates in very extreme environments, doing very difficult missions,” said Al Schumacher, assistant associate director of ground vehicle power and mobility at Tardec. “If we can makes these vehicles function in that environment, we should be able to implement them in commercial applications that are cheaper and very reliable.”