Army Seeks to Tap Into Auto Industry’s Massive R&D Spending

By Sandra I. Erwin

Photo: Sandra I. Erwin

General Motors in the 1960s snapped up technology from NASA’s space program to develop a hydrogen fuel cell powered Chevrolet test car. 

In somewhat of a role reversal, the U.S. Army is about to acquire a GM pickup truck powered by fuel cell technology in which commercial auto companies have invested $2.5 billion in research and development. 

The Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 fuel cell electric truck — first unveiled last fall at the Association of the U.S. Army exposition in Washington, D.C. — was back in town last week at the 2017 Washington Auto Show. The Army officially “gets the keys” in April, said Paul D. Rogers, director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC.

Rogers said he hopes the truck will become a shining example of a new way of doing business in the Army as Pentagon R&D budgets shrink and technology leaps are being made by the private sector. 

Detroit-based TARDEC bills itself as the nexus between the military and the resurgent U.S. auto industry. “We are strategically positioned in Southeast Michigan in the heart of the automobile industry,” Rogers told reporters at the Washington Auto Show. “Our position there is critical for the U.S. Army and for the Department of Defense.”

The auto industry in Michigan spends more than $8 billion a year on research and development. “We are there to help leverage that, and build strategic relationships to produce innovative vehicles,” said Rogers. The Army spent $4 million and nine months building the experimental Colorado. “For $4 million we’re getting access to $2.5 billion worth of industry investment.”

The potential benefits for the military are considerable, he said. Fuel cell electric vehicles combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity to run the motor. The ZH2 motor is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and a battery. “They are very quiet vehicles, which scouts, special operators and other specialties place at a premium,” Rogers said. Further, fuel cells generate electricity as a byproduct, which soldiers have indicated they would find useful in combat zones. 

Once the Army takes ownership of the vehicle in April, the truck will be shuttling across several Army posts and Marine Corps bases for troops to put it through its paces.

TARDEC is championing the value of commercial vehicle technology for the Army despite long-held biases and reservations about off-the-shelf equipment’s ability to meet stringent military requirements. 

“This is a unique opportunity to leverage commercial technology,” Rogers said. The advanced fuel cell in the Colorado was designed for rugged terrain use, the Army asked for a special suspension designed for off-road mobility. 

Engineers anticipate soldiers will question the logistics burdens of such a vehicle, which requires hydrogen fuel. The day before the D.C. auto show, TARDEC officials gathered to discuss the implications of using hydrogen in the field — and how soldiers in war zones would produce, store and distribute it. This was a “first of its kind” workshop, an Army news related noted, to understand the potential challenges of investing in hydrogen fuel cell-based energy for military vehicles, generators and infrastructure.

Army units could be provided with mobile reformer units that would produce hydrogen from jet fuel, natural gas or other sources. “We have to understand how to do it with different feed stocks, in different environments,” said Rogers. “I’m very encouraged so far.” 

One logistical benefit of fuel cells is that there are no moving parts. “There is a lot less that could go wrong compared to an internal combustion engine. We see a reduction in spare parts.” The propulsion system also generates two gallons of water per hour of operation.

“I want to have a good business case laid out by the end of the year,” Rogers said. “This appears to be a high payoff opportunity. But we have to work out the numbers.”

Topics: Army News, Research and Development, Science and Engineering Technology

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