DETROIT - Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler are competing to supply the U.S. Army's next workhorse truck, using their established pickup models as the basis.
Modified versions of either the Ford F-350 or Dodge Ram may be in the service of Uncle Sam by 2004, Army officials say. The Pentagon sees the vehicles as potentially cheaper, comfortable and technically sophisticated alternatives to the Army's mainstay, the 20-year-old HUMMWV. The HUMMWV is built by AM General Corp. of South Bend, Ind., and sold to the public as the Hummer.
'We want to make sure we're giving the best technology to the soldier and the best value to the taxpayer,' said Dennis Wend, director of the National Automotive Cen-ter, a division of the Army's Tank- Automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich.
Wend unveiled two prototype pickups at the SAE 2000 World Congress.
The vehicles, an F-350 SuperDuty Crew Cab and a Dodge Ram Quad Cab 2500, were modified with air-adjustable suspensions, electronically controlled shock absorbers, tire-inflation systems and beefier axle differentials.
The electrical systems were altered to accommodate 12-volt, 24-volt and 110-volt power loads. The spartan interiors featured global positioning hardware, flat-screen computer monitors, infrared night vision displays and collision-warning devices.
Both vehicles were equipped with the diesel engines available on their civilian counterparts. Engineering consultant Erim International of Ann Arbor, Mich., oversaw the development of the vehicles for the government.
The Army will decide which vehicle to purchase in about 18 months after it takes delivery of six more prototypes and subjects them to testing at its proving grounds in Aberdeen, Md. The contract will be for 10,000 vehicles per year for four to five years, Wend said.
The latest procurement of HUMMWVs cost the Army $60,000 per vehicle. In contrast, a military version of a civilian pickup likely will cost the Treasury no more than $40,000 apiece, he said.
As an all-purpose workhorse, the monstrous HUMMWV has some drawbacks, including no air conditioning and limited passenger space. Also, the go-anywhere HUMMWV is overbuilt for many of the daily chores of carting soldiers and their equipment, Wend said. Rear guard duty often is conducted on paved roads.
The Army does not plan to scrap the HUMMWV; it purchases about 1,000 per year. 'It was really designed as a weapons platform for machine guns and (anti-tank) missiles, and that's the role it should have,' Wend said.
The automakers are holding the cost down on the military pickup by keeping as many parts in common with regular production models.
'We're trying to make the whole vehicle buildable on a regular assembly line,' said Ken Wolf, a retired Ford engineer who was hired by Erim to be a consultant on Ford's entry. 'It means leaving the body and the basic suspension attachment points the same.'
Auto industry service
Ford and DaimlerChrysler built their prototypes in a 2-year-old Army program dubbed COMBATT, for Commercially Based Tactical Truck. The goal of COMBATT is to save the military money by tapping the auto industry for mass-production vehicles. The Army wants to take advantage of the industry's economies of scale and its vast service network. Ford has even proposed the idea of leasing its vehicles to the military.
'We only put an average of 5,000 miles on our vehicles per year. They could be very attractive to the commercial marketplace after we're done with them,' Wend said.
The COMBATT program experienced a twist when Chrysler Corp. merged with Daimler-Benz AG in 1998. DaimlerChrysler Chairman Juergen Schrempp said late last month that the company will replace the Dodge Ram's optional Cummins turbodiesel engine with a Mercedes-Benz unit.
Wend said the Army has no problem buying vehicles from a German company as long as they are manufactured in the United States. Richard Ray, DaimlerChrysler's general manager for truck operations, said his company still is evaluating the business case for the program in the wake of the merger.
Said Ray: 'Our leadership has not expressed an opinion one way or the other.'