While automakers spend millions of dollars trying to improve fuel economy by a tenth of a gallon, a small DaimlerChrysler research team in Auburn Hills has managed a 25-percent increase in fuel economy with small engineering changes that add just $500 to the cost of a Dodge Durango SUV.
In another program, the Chrysler Group's Liberty development team has developed a transmission Chrysler claims can improve fuel economy 12 percent to 15 percent. That electromechanical transmission is scheduled for use in a Chrysler production vehicle.
Chrysler instituted the Liberty development group in February 1989 to do advanced research, like the development of DaimlerChrysler's sodium borohydride material for storing hydrogen in fuel cell vehicles. Liberty also works closely with suppliers, developing systems like the power doors and liftgate on Chrysler's minivan. Chrysler's first hybrid electric vehicles, which should be on the market within 18 months, will also use a system developed at Liberty. The name has no connection with the Jeep Liberty.
Liberty consisted of just 50 people -- including clerical and support staff -- doing advanced researchon a shoestring budget in an anonymous-looking industrial parkin Auburn Hills. When Chrysler and Daimler-Benz merged in 1998, most observers assumed Liberty's goose was cooked. What could the team possibly contribute, compared with Daimler's world-class facilities in Stuttgart?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
"I am always amazed at the amount of innovation this small group creates," Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche said.
Liberty's staff is mostly engineers, with "a handful of scientists, PhDs in physics and engineering" evaluating emerging ideas from all fields for automotive applications, said Thomas Moore, Chrysler Group Vice President, Liberty and Technical Affairs.
While the new transmission resulted from basic research into a whole new system, the Durango's fuel efficiency gains come from a project to see how much Liberty could achieve by applying small and inexpensive improvements to an existing product, Moore said.
Early tests suggest Liberty's modifications to the Durango's aerodynamics and 4.7L V8 engine could improve the four-wheel-drive SUV's EPA highway fuel economy from 18 m.p.g. to 22.5 m.p.g.
Chrysler has already begun using some of the ideas from the Durango concept in production vehicles, and more will follow as new engines and vehicles go into production, Moore said.
"We are discussing these ideas with our Mercedes-Benz colleagues," Moore said. "The concepts are clear. We will put pieces of this technology in at every opportunity."
Liberty combined an array of small improvements to achieve the Durango's dramatic increase in fuel economy. Modifications to the engine include a higher compression ratio, better heat management and lower friction within the engine. Chrysler calls it the MAGIC -- or Multiple Approaches to Great Internal Combustion -- engine.
Chrysler's 3.7L V6 uses some of the MAGIC engine's tricks, and a few more go into production of the new 5.7L Hemi V8, Moore said.
"The improvements in thermal management are coming pretty soon," he said. The engine's use of oil jets to cool the pistons only when needed is among those coming attractions. Current engines that squirt oil on the pistons use a continuous flow of oil, while the new system Liberty developed will monitor the pistons' temperature and apply oil as needed to keep them at the most efficient operating temperature.
Chrysler has applied for a patent on an innovative design for the engine's cylinder heads. It creates a pocket of air around the intake port to keep the air at the best temperature for efficient combustion.
"It's like a Thermos," Moore said. 'When the engine starts, the intake air heats more rapidly, but it also keeps the air from getting too warm when the engine is running at high power. It provides more efficient air flow. That innovation is not scheduled for a production engine yet, he says.
Those and other engine modifications reduce the Durango's fuel consumption about 14 percent.
A variety of improvements contribute another 11 percent reduction in fuel use. Aerodynamic changes include replacing the side view mirrors with a small exterior camera and video screens on the SUV's A-pillar, a belly pan and air dams to improve airflow under the vehicle, and shutters that close the grille when the engine does not need air for cooling.
The Durango also uses a stop-start alternator to shut the engine off at traffic lights, electro-hydraulic power steering, an electric water pump and electronic thermostat.
The new transmission is essentially a robotically operated manual transmission, Moore said. It uses a unique arrangement of two clutches to produce shifts as smooth as a conventional automatic transmission.
It thus combines the comfort of an automatic with the fuel efficiency of a manual transmission. Several automakers have such "automated manual transmissions" in production, but Moore says Liberty's design is the first to produce the smooth shifting American customers demand.
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