Standards Raised For EcoCAR 2 College Teams

By Danny King May 4, 2011

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When General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy kicked off the first EcoCAR advanced-powertrain vehicle competition for North American universities three years ago, the teams were charged with tricking out Saturn Vue crossover vehicles with motors that used less gas but maintained performance. For the second version of the contest, the vehicles may be smaller, but the stakes and expectations will be bigger.

EcoCAR 2, which starts its own three-year process this fall, will use Chevrolet Malibu midsized sedans for the contest's mules, forcing the teams to cram their fuel-minimizing powertrains and control systems into a substantially smaller space. But it's not like many of the competitors have the time to think about that yet. Of the 16 teams chosen for EcoCAR 2, 10 are still participating in EcoCAR 1, whose organizers gave out $50,000 in cash prizes to Year 2 winners last year and are doubling that amount for Year 3. The winners will be announced at a Washington, D.C., ceremony in June.

"Our main focus right now is finishing up Year 3 of EcoCAR," said Lynn Gantt, leader of the Virginia Tech team that ended EcoCAR's Year 2 as runner-up to winner Mississippi St. last May. "But we do acknowledge that with a sedan comes a smaller packaging option."

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The decision by EcoCAR organizers to use the Malibu illustrates the higher bar being set for engineering students charged with retrofitting vehicles to use less gas without sacrificing performance or utility. Mississippi St. did the best job performing that task last year with a plug-in hybrid vehicle that paired an electric motor with a 1.3-liter GM turbodiesel engine that served as an on-board generator. The vehicle achieved a fuel economy of 118 miles-per-gallon equivalent in addition to winning best-acceleration and autocross honors among the teams.

Joining Mississippi St. and Virginia Tech among returning squads to EcoCAR 2 is last year's third-place finisher Penn St., Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and Indiana's Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, as well as Canada's University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Victoria and University of Waterloo.

Additionally, California State University at Los Angeles, Colorado State, Purdue University, University of Tennessee, University of Washington and Detroit's Wayne State University were chosen as newcomers for EcoCAR 2. Each new team will be paired with a returning squad in order to help the new teams with tasks such as managing production timelines and materials needed to get through each stage, according to Kristen De La Rosa, EcoCAR director and program manager for the advanced-vehicle technology competitions at the DOE's Argonne National Laboratory.

For team members of Wayne St. and Cal State L.A., the selection is especially fortuitous given the substantial role the automotive industry plays in both Detroit and Los Angeles. "Dozens of automotive companies and agencies have their design and test facilities in the region," said team leader David Blekhman, an associate professor at Cal St. L.A.'s College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology. "We certainly are hoping to utilize local support for the project."

As it is, the teams will get a running start by being provided $25,000 each in part to develop computer-modeling programs to better create vehicle design while providing performance simulation. As with EcoCAR 1, organizers will present teams with their vehicles after one year and hold weeklong competitions at the end of Year 2 and Year 3, in which the vehicles will be graded on criteria such as well-to-wheel emissions, performance, safety and utility.

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What kind of powertrains those vehicles will use remains to be seen. For EcoCAR 1, half of the vehicles are extended-range plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, two are hydrogen fuel-cell plug-in electric vehicles, three are plug-in hybrids, two are conventional hybrids and one is a battery-electric vehicle. Over the past year, such vehicles' electrical, technical and mechanical components have been fine-tuned so that the cars presented this June will be in what contest organizers call "near-showroom quality." 

With such high standards, the teams have been putting in big hours in the shop while soliciting sponsors to help pay for vehicle improvements. Both Gantt and Mississippi St. team leader and mechanical engineering student Matthew Doude say fellow team members generally put in between 15 and 30 hours a week, but that the commitment can spike to 100 hours a week as deadlines approach.

Like a college basketball team, a victory or recognition is a mixed blessing each year as members get picked off by car companies. "We have a lot of momentum right now, which makes it easier to recruit top students, attract sponsors, and garner media attention for our outreach program," said Doude. "We will lose several key team members from EcoCAR 1, mostly to full-time jobs in the auto industry. Fortunately we have younger members who are ready to step into those roles."

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