Of Merlot and motors

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That Michelin’s 2003 Challenge Bibendum should have been held in Sonoma, smack in the middle of California wine country, seems appropriate. “Bibendum,” the name of the betired Michelin Man, means “Now is the time to drink,” which was the caption for one of old Bib’s first posters. Of course, he was drinking nails and glass at the time, to prove how tough he was.

We press-types had a better time of it in September, as we tasted reds and whites by night, and observed the Challenge by day.

The annual event was created to provide an energy and emissions dialog, and a showcase/competition for advanced-technology vehicles – vehicles that conserve traditional fuels, or run on alternate fuels or power sources, and produce low emissions. The object is to explore various means to sustainable mobility.

This year, major manufacturers from Europe, Asia and North America, as well as energy suppliers and government and civil representatives, came both to compete and discuss infrastructure, regulations, energy supplies, technological challenges, consumer needs and the impact of transportation on the environment.

In the competition phase, commercial vehicles were scored on emissions, acceleration, noise energy efficiency and range, and there was an overnight, idle fuel consumption competition for Class 8 trucks. For passenger vehicles, additional categories included braking and handling, and there were awards for interior and exterior design and technology integration.
There were more than 150 vehicles in all, with gasoline, electric, electric hybrid, clean diesel, hydrogen, fuel cell and natural gas propulsion systems.

While passenger cars dominated the field, organizers are quick to point out that this is the first year for a true commercial vehicle competition.

This year’s commercial vehicle awards:

  • For Class 3-5: An Isuzu Elf (Japan-market NPR) running on compressed natural gas (CNG) received Gold awards for emissions and energy efficiency and a Silver award for noise. A diesel-powered Ford F-550 with hydraulic assist received a gold for energy efficiency.
  • For Class 6-7: A CNG-burning Freightliner FL 70 took a Gold for energy efficiency and a Silver for range.
  • For Class 8: A diesel-powered Freightliner Century Class earned a Silver in energy efficiency. A diesel-powered Volvo VN780 took the Gold for idle fuel consumption. And a Freightliner Century Class with a fuel-cell auxiliary power unit brought home a Silver in that category.

The awards are, by no means, a testament to the virtues of any particular technology. The idea, according to Michelin, is not to pick one superior vehicle, but to compare current performance standards to those afforded by a variety of new technologies.

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My take on the event is that it’s very positive and will ultimately be far more productive than government mandates – especially the underhanded kind that resulted in trucking’s ’02 diesel engine debacle. Participants were at the challenge because they wanted to be. They came to compete, to compare notes and to help make things better.
A toastworthy endeavor, overall.