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Hybridizing a Hybrid to Widen Market Opportunities

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The trend toward greener products as a means of enhancing competitiveness and boosting customer appeal is evident in many industries, particularly the automotive sector.

In a bid to capitalize on this trend and create a wider market for its on-road vehicles, BRP has launched an ambitious, four-year, $12.5 million R&D partnership with the Université de Sherbrooke to develop a hybrid version of its popular Can-Am Spyder roadster. Backed with a $6.7 million commitment from APC, the partners will employ an iterative design approach to generate three different generations of prototypes. If successful, BRP will transfer the technology to full-scale commercial production at its plant in Valcourt, Quebec.

"Consumers, especially the younger generation, are becoming ever more environmentally conscious," observes Mihai Rasidescu, president and general manager of the Advanced Technology Centre BRP-Université de Sherbrooke (CTA), a unique private-public R&D partnership. "From that perspective, it is crucial for us to develop a hybrid propulsion system for the Spyder roadster."

The university research team, led by Dr. Alain Desrochers, includes six other professors (five from Université de Sherbrooke and one from Université Laval), 14 postgraduate students and six postdoctoral fellows. The professors have expertise in each of the project's five broad areas of system components development: hybrid propulsion technology, active thermal management modeling, transmission design and control, lightweight chassis, and aerodynamics.

BRP's Can-Am Spyder roadster occupies a unique market niche. In fact, the three-wheel vehicle, launched in 2007, is part motorcycle and part convertible sports car. Of note, it is the only mass-produced, on-road vehicle that is entirely designed and manufactured in Canada.

Because the vehicle is so unique, it introduces many new design challenges that will push the limits of hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) technology development. While most automakers are retrofitting HEV components into existing internal combustion engine vehicles, this partnership aims to develop its HEV from scratch. As such, it is the first HEV development project of its kind in the world.

Unlike an automobile, where the HEV engine is either in front or behind the driver, with the roadster, the electric powertrain components need to be packaged into a comparatively small space beneath the driver. Adding a bulky, heavy battery and an electric motor to that limited space becomes an enormous packaging and engineering challenge.

"There is not a lot of real estate aboard these vehicles," says Rasidescu. "Moreover, the cost of the batteries will also impose limits on the degree to which the Spyder roadster can be hybridized. Those are just some of the challenges that we face in deciding the right balance between the electric motor and the combustion engine. In applied research like this, you have to strike a fine balance between the different factors that will make the product commercially successful."

While greener products are expected to enhance BRP's market opportunities, such offerings are very costly to develop and produce. The APC funding is very timely because it helps offset costly R&D expenses during a period of economic uncertainty.

"APC not only allows us to speed up the development of these greener products, but it provides support at a very difficult time for Canadian companies. We need this form of risk sharing to develop these greener products that allow us to remain competitive and create jobs in Canada."