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Chrysler Patriot Hybrid: Perspectives

by Michael Dickens

Richard A. Samul spent his entire 36-year career with Chrysler Engineering around automotive proving grounds. He enjoyed the life of a car fanatic. Some days, it meant test driving cars on the oval track. On other days, he toiled in a road test garage as an experimental dynamometric mechanic.

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One of the more unique projects was the Chrysler Patriot.

In the early 1990s, Chrysler engineer Ian Sharp created the Patriot; it was meant to be a Formula One turbine-powered hybrid-electric racing car, with flywheel energy storage and regenerative braking. Along the way, managers changed many of Sharp's specifications, right down to replacing the turbine generator unit. (See this full history of the Patriot from conception to final production, with the mistakes made along the way.)

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Richard Samul was there:

I worked on the Patriot Project as the dynamometer operator, on loan to Liberty and Technical Affairs, for a year or so. The testing was performed at Chrysler Engineering, in the Highland Park complex, in Building 135, Test Cell 2 - the old Chrysler Turbine Research area.

I worked with Chrysler engineers Mike Royce, Kim Lyons, and Lee Carducci as well as with engineers from SatCon (from Boston, Massachussetts). The test cell had a Froud 1200 HP water brake dynamometer that had been used in a prior Chrysler/Lamborghini engine testing program. The electric motor was rated at 750 horsepower.
The Patriot received much hype and fanfare when it was first introduced. After all, it was to be a great leap forward in racing technology, thanks to its use of alternative energy storage and efficiency.

While the flywheel was a visible issue, one which might have been solved with time and investments, a major problem with the car may have been the engine itself. Ian Sharp wrote that Allied Signal had agreed to provide five free engines, which would have been ideal; with a crew of engineers to help use them. However, an executive overrode this choice, to avoid the effort of getting a new vendor approved; instead, they went with SatCon, at great expense, and with an less than ideal engine choice.

Unfortunately for the Patriot, it seemed for every two steps it leaped forward, it took one step backward.

"There were problems with the Patriot," Samul told us during a telephone interview. He wasted little time pointing out the liabilities of the flywheel.

A flywheel energy storage (FES) system functions by accelerating a flywheel (rotor) to high speeds, maintaining this energy. As energy was extracted from the FES, the flywheel's rotational speed reduced.

The ability to use the FES technology as the electrical load-leveling device for transient electrical absorption and, more to the point, delivery of power to (and from) the motor was the key to the Patriot's success - or failure.

As it turned out, the flywheel's mechanical integrity came into question, and it proved too great an obstacle to fix.

"It proved a failure," Samul said. "There were two deaths as a result of the flywheel. We found out it wasn't safe to put it in a race car. It wasn't safe for drivers or for spectators. There was always a fear it could explode."

Samul said the Patriot's designers retrofitted the test cell and took it to half-power to make it safer. Despite the changes, Chrysler's engineers could not overcome the problems that were associated with the integrity of the flywheel. The flywheel was always at risk of shattering - literally coming apart - because of high-speed pressure. Adequate protection from a shattering flywheel would exact too much of a weight penalty. He wrote:

A flywheel energy storage device that was being tested by another unknown company failed. It was rumored that it killed a couple of engineers. This was the story I was told that ended the project. If true, metallurgy and containment technology needed to be improved, to make for a safe installation in a vehicle.
Testing had reached about 50% of its power level when the project was cancelled by Francois J. Castaing.

Washington Post automotive columnist Warren Brown remembered the problems. Asked if the racing car was ahead of its time during a recent online Q & A chat, he said, "It wasn't so much that the car was ahead of its time, as it was that ceramic technology was not up to the heat and vibration demands of a high-performance car. Ceramic pieces, then thought essential to a high-heat turbine drive train, kept failing. And, ceramic technology was and remains quite expensive."

As much as Samul wanted to see the Patriot project succeed, he said, "We weren't ready for it."

Although the Patriot never raced in a Formula One event, Samul isn't bitter. "It was an interesting project to be involved with, but it fizzled out."

Unlike some critics, Samul believes the Patriot was ahead of its time. "Sometimes, the best plans don't always work out."

Afterwards: the flywheel concept survives

Over a decade later, in 2009, Formula One teams started racing with kinetic energy recovery systems; in one race, all the teams taking the pole raced KERS cars.

Ian Sharp wrote, "[This is,] in my estimation, the future of onboard energy recovery, not batteries or supercapacitors. The system in question is connected directly to the transmission, is not affected by temperature, is light, and very cost effective."

Chrysler Patriot (with Ian Sharp's comments)main concept cars pageRichard Samul interview

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Concept cars are often made so a car's feel can be evaluated, problems can be foreseen, and reactions of the public can be judged. Some concepts test specific ideas, colors, controls, or materials - either subtle or out of proportion, to hide what's being tested. Some are created to help designers think "out of the box." The Challenger, Prowler, PT Cruiser, and Viper were all tested as production-based concepts dressed up to hide the production intent.

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