Concept Cars, Only Tougher

September 22, 2006
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MUSKEGON — In a much more subdued version of the mythical Area 51 testing facility, tales of odd shaped sport utility vehicles and boxy, brown Humvees have become Lakeshore street legend.

At least in theory, all of these stories of next-generation military vehicle sightings are true, provided they occurred along the stretch of road between Getty Street and Seminole Road in Muskegon.

Of many projects, this could have been one of the RST-V prototypes in development at General Dynamics Land Systems Muskegon Technical Center. The Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Targeting Vehicle is a joint project of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initially intended for use with the 5-foot-wide bay of the V-22 Osprey aircraft.

Nearly a decade in development, the RST-V is as narrow as the original Jeep trucks but with the durability of a Humvee. Some of the prototypes are armored, others are not. They are all but silent, powered by a series hybrid drive train with a diesel engine. Easily the most intimidating hybrid vehicle on any road, the RST-V produces 100 kilowatts of electricity in normal operation, enough to continuously power a neighborhood of 12-14 houses, depending on how many have the air conditioning running.

The truck also comes equipped with an export power module capable of supporting 30 kilowatts of use — allowing a military command center, hospital, mess hall or other functions to be deployed in a matter of hours without the aid of portable generators.

“Especially in the Marine world, this is very exciting,” said Thomas Trzaska, manager of advanced programs engineering for the Muskegon Technical Center. “That world is very expeditionary; you leave all your stuff on a ship. Now you can leave the generators behind … you can set up a command center right from the truck.”

Trzaska believes his group has created the most mobile and versatile 4x4 vehicle in its weight class on the planet. It has been tested in every type of environment imaginable. Put through the rounds by Marines and U.S. Special Forces, some of the prototypes have logged as many as 20,000 miles, and have been judged reliable for both an Arctic morning start and a 250-mile trek across the Iraqi desert. With a separate motor in each wheel hub, the vehicle can be safely driven with only three wheels intact, should one be lost in the field.

But, for all its impressive features, the over-$40 million RST-V might never see production.

“Most things we build are not intended for production,” said Tim Haak, engineering resource manager for structures and mechanical systems. “It’s no different than the concept cars you see in the commercial vehicle market. If the customer responds to it, those concepts will be applied to future models; and that’s how they know whether to release something like the Aztec.”

The Pontiac Aztec midsize crossover SUV was first introduced as a well-received concept car in 1999, and with some subtle changes was released to the market in 2001. Other recent examples include the Chevy SSR and Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Since its beginning in a former Best Products showroom at 640 Seminole Road in 1991, the 150-employee, 50,000-square-foot Muskegon Technical Center has built prototypes and led the development of advanced concepts for light and medium land systems. The center serves as the birthing area for many of the new starts and high concepts within General Dynamics’ combat vehicle and subassembly division, a $2.8 billion segment.

Many of the high-concept trials never even make it off the computer screen. Others will exist only as plywood mockups. Many of the applications that are realized will see field testing and user feedback, and then be retooled. The lessons learned by these successes and failures are applied to ongoing programs such as the RST-V or the Department of Defense’s Future Combat System initiative.

In 15 years, only one product has emerged fully realized from the center, the Multiple Gun System. Now a weapon system for the Stryker light armored vehicle, the MGS was originally conceived nearly two decades ago, and the first production lot was turned over to the U.S. Army this month.

“Very few ideas actually make it to the end,” said Trazska. “Our main objective is not to make money; we don’t manufacture anything here. Our charter is to forward new product development.”

Another idea, a larger weight, eight-wheel “big brother” to the RST-V, is currently being tested in the United Kingdom, and could soon be put into production for the British armed forces.

For obvious reasons, the technical center keeps a relatively low profile, but the Muskegon community should know that General Dynamics is still represented. The massive Land Systems facility on Getty Street was acquired by L3 Communications last year.

“I was at a picnic this weekend, wearing my General Dynamics shirt, and someone asked me if I worked for L3,” Haak said, adding, “We’re still here.”

Long a partner with the subassembly facility, the Muskegon Technical Center now leases labs, testing facilities and contract employees from L3. When a concept does reach the production stage, it is turned over to General Dynamics’ manufacturing facilities in Sterling Heights and Ohio.    

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