U.S. automakers have until 2025 to raise the fuel economy on their cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon—double the current standard—or face government fines. The industry has spent years pouring billions of dollars into research and development to comply with the mandate. Now it may get a boost from an unexpected source: the Pentagon.
Government researchers at a new $60 million laboratory are road-testing dozens of alternative fuel technologies for fighting vehicles, from converting body heat into electricity to perfecting fuel cells that transform hydrogen into power—and they plan to share them with U.S. carmakers. “The military operates in very extreme environments,” says Al Schumacher, assistant associate director of ground vehicle power and mobility at the military’s Tank Automotive Research and Development and Engineering Center. “If we can make these vehicles function” under those conditions, “we should be able to implement them in commercial applications that are cheaper and very reliable.”
The military’s researchers are aiming to improve parts that drain energy, such as radiators, air filters, and mufflers. In one experiment, workers are trying to recapture engine power that’s wasted as exhaust heat and convert it into electricity that could recharge batteries or run internal computers. After they develop a working prototype they’ll install it on a tank and test it at temperatures ranging from 160F to -60F, going “from Yuma to Antarctica in a day,” says Michael Reid, the lab’s director of vehicle testing. Experimenting on 60,000-pound war machines can yield clues about how 5,000-pound pickups would fare with the same part, he says.
The lab opened last month in Warren, Mich., just north of Detroit—on a site dubbed “The Arsenal of Democracy,” where the U.S. Army contracted with Chrysler during World War II to build tanks. After the war ended, carmakers began adapting some of the technology developed for combat vehicles. “Just about any material used in a passenger car was probably improved with military research,” says John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst.
General Motors perfected its automatic transmissions for Cadillacs after installing them in M-5 light tanks built to fight the Germans. The first Jeep, built to navigate European battlefields, rolled off the Willys-Overland Motors assembly line in 1941; its pioneering four-wheel-drive system soon found its way to American driveways. And a shortage of natural rubber in World War II spawned a government project to improve the synthetic version used in virtually every car and truck today.
The Pentagon says more efficient tanks would lead to fewer fuel convoys and repairs during combat, saving money and lives while offering up technologies the auto industry can adapt for civilians. Mary Beth Stanek, GM’s director of federal environmental and energy regulatory affairs, says the company is considering working on hydrogen fuel-cell tests with the lab. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” says Stanek, “And with [its] proximity, we should be able to leverage these assets for the whole auto industry.”