Students with the EcoCAR

Students rise to the eco-friendly challenge of re-engineering cars

American university teams are currently taking part in the three year EcoCAR challenge, re-engineering a car to minimise its fuel consumption and emissions.

Across North America, student engineers are gearing up for the finals of the three-year EcoCAR competition. This challenges 16 university teams to re-engineer a General Motors (GM) donated vehicle to minimise its fuel consumption and emissions.

Currently lying in first place in the competition is Mississippi State University (MSU) with a biodiesel extended-range electric vehicle or EREV. Its fuel economy stood out during last year's testing, achieving 118 miles per gallon gas equivalent. But the team certainly hasn't been resting on its laurels and has been applying what it learnt at the winter workshop at the MathWorks HQ in Boston to its vehicle control systems.

Team leader Matt Doude explains in the team blog that it will also be using super-computing to further push the boundaries of the control system. “We like having a competitive edge, and we like that edge to be sharp," he says.

EcoCAR, The NeXt Challenge

Launched in the academic year 2008-2009, EcoCAR, The NeXt Challenge, follows the highly successful student engineering competition Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility, which concluded in May 2008 and involved re-engineering a Chevrolet Equinox with alternative propulsion systems. The headline sponsors of both challenges are the US Department of Energy and GM with the former's research and development facility, the Argonne National Laboratory, managing the event. A raft of other organisations are sponsoring and supporting the challenge including the Government of Canada, the US Environmental Protection Agency and major players from the field of engineering and science.

“EcoCAR demands a lot of its students and one of their challenges is to fit the project around their own studies which must comes first,” says MSU team member Michael Barr, who is studying for his Masters degree in mechanical engineering.

Gaining practical real world experience

Barr is looking forward to having a finished vehicle that is "low emission, energy efficient, and consumer acceptable" and has no doubt about the benefits of being involved in the project. "I have enjoyed being able to work hands on with a vehicle and with engineering tools that most students don't have an opportunity to work with," he says. "With this competition, we are able to gain practical real world experience."

Students spent the first year of EcoCAR developing vehicle designs through GM's Global Vehicle Development Process, which is the modeling simulation process used to design and develop all GM vehicles. Teams are challenged to design and build advanced propulsion solutions based on vehicle categories from the California Air Resources Board's zero emissions vehicle regulations and are encouraged to explore the use of electric, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel cells. Typically they are also incorporating lightweight materials in their design, improving aerodynamics and making use of alternative fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen.

In the second year, teams made use of automotive engineering processes such as hardware in the loop (HIL) simulation to turn their designs into real vehicles that were eventually rolled out of their "green garages" and put through stringent safety and technical tests at GM's Desert proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona. The Green Garage blog (, set-up to support the challenge, provides ongoing insight into how teams are further developing their vehicles and reveals how dedicated students are to the project. Although there is great rivalry, the spirit of the challenge is transcending team boundaries.

Pennsylvania State University EcoCAR team recently travelled six hours to Columbus in Ohio to take part in a tailgate competition with Ohio State University, an event that has become a tradition between the two sides, while at Christmas many of the universities came together to record an EcoCAR themed rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Big prizes at stake

There will be one main winner and more than two dozen category awards with a total of $100,000 in prize money at stake. The winners receive $7,000 in prize money and as the organisers point out, some "serious bragging rights".

The National Science Foundation also sponsors two faculty advisor awards to help support engineering curriculum development and the continuity of the advanced vehicle technology programme at the university. There are far bigger and more meaningful prizes than just cash, however, with the collaboration and networking opportunities it provides through the sponsors being a potential springboard to real employment.

"EcoCAR is much like a first job in the industry," says a spokesperson at Argonne National Laboratory. "Many students graduate with stronger prospects for a real one, regardless of how their vehicle placed."

Career opportunities

Just as it did with Challenge X, the competition has provided a fertile recruiting ground for main sponsor GM, which has already hired 20 competition students for full-time positions and eight as interns. “EcoCAR has already produced many fine young engineers," says Cindy Svestka, engineering group manager, cranking systems and electronic sensors at General Motors. "We are excited to have many of these enthusiastic, highly-skilled students now working in our powertrain and hybrid vehicle development teams." Svestka adds that GM plans to hire additional students in the coming months.

Dr Doug Nelson is professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty advisor for hybrid electric vehicle team of Virginia Tech for the past 17 years and has seen GM and other sponsors recruit extensively from project teams. "Many other prospective employers recognise the value of a project like this, and the students have some impressive material to add to their resume and to discuss in interviews," he says adding that as well as helping students integrate all of their knowledge to design, build, and test a vehicle, they also learn how hard many of the trade-offs are when designing such a vehicle.

"Such as the all electric range versus the mass added for a large battery in a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle," he says. "Along the way, they also learn about team work in a project, environmental issues and solutions, and the automotive manufacturing and supplier industry." Virginia Tech has so far earned second place this year with its ethanol EREV design.

The final takes place over an 11 day period in June with the first half at GM's proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan, and the second part in Washington DC at the Department of Energy. There's a lot of pride at stake but students know they are also working to the bigger goal of helping to build a cleaner energy future for everyone. Karl Stracke, vice president, global vehicle engineering for General Motors, says each team had experimented with technologies and made great strides towards optimising fuel efficiency and minimizing emissions.

"These students worked tirelessly in their Green Garages building the next generation of clean vehicles and their progress has exceeded our expectations," he says. “With critical and successful testing under their belts, we’re excited to see the teams refine and improve their vehicles in the last leg of the EcoCAR competition.”

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