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August 5, 09

NEWS / College Students Driving Green Vehicles to New Heights

Concept car competitions help rebuild America’s ailing auto industry
By Matt Herrick
Staff Writer

Washington — Forget the papier-mâché volcano spewing vinegar and baking soda. Nowadays, American students participating in science fairs are more likely to get a demonstration in fuel-cell vehicle technology from a group of college engineering students at the forefront of the green technology movement.

“Students tend to learn most effectively when they see something that has more of an impact in their own lives,” said Beth Bezaire, a mechanical-engineering graduate student at Ohio State University. Bezaire is a member of Ohio State’s EcoCar Next Challenge team, a group of students and faculty advisers competing with other North American universities to produce an advanced-technology concept car.

The EcoCar Next Challenge is a three-year competition challenging students like Bezaire to re-engineer a Saturn VUE — a five-passenger sport utility vehicle made by General Motors Corporation (GM) — to achieve greater efficiencies and do as little harm to the environment as possible. Projects are judged on how successfully they incorporate technologies that reduce petroleum consumption, increase the vehicle’s energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions, and maintain the vehicle’s consumer appeal.

The U.S. Department of Energy says only 15 percent of the fuel in a vehicle’s tank gets used to move a car down the road or run useful accessories, such as air conditioning. The rest may be lost to engine inefficiencies and idling. Advanced vehicle technologies attempt to improve both driving and non-driving efficiencies.

In June 2009, Bezaire’s team took top honors at the EcoCar competition’s first round in Toronto. Their VUE was designed to get a 300 percent increase in fuel efficiency over a typical four-cylinder VUE. For two more years, the 17 finalist teams will each build a fully functioning electric, hybrid, plug-in hybrid or fuel-cell hybrid vehicle. They also will be responsible for completing business, marketing and outreach plans for their vehicles.

The process mimics GM’s own Global Vehicle Development Process, with the teams having the same resources at their disposal as GM’s own engineers. GM provides each team with a typical four-cylinder 2009 Saturn VUE available at any Saturn dealership, as well as additional parts, seed money and mentoring.

Engineering students from Mississippi State University received third place in Toronto with their electric-biodiesel hybrid. The university won first place overall in the last full competition (2004–2008), known then as Challenge X.

Matthew Doude, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, leads Mississippi State’s current team. Doude wrote this on competitor Ohio State’s Facebook page after its first-round victory in 2009: “Your team does every part of the competition well, from presentations to reports to building great cars.”

That type of sincere sportsmanship, said Ohio State team leader Eric Schacht, is what makes EcoCar a valuable experience. “The biggest goal of the program is to educate us as engineers on how to design and work with a vehicle like this as a manufacturer like GM would work with it,” Schacht said. He estimates team members spend 10 to 30 hours each week in the design lab. Many — like him — skip summer breaks to meet deadlines, hoping that the experience complements other research assignments or opens pathways to a career. Along the way, Schacht said, teams are looking for breakthroughs that will enhance efficiency and bring down production costs if their vehicle were to be mass produced.

The contest is primarily sponsored by GM, the U.S. Department of Energy and the government of Canada.

“The vehicle designs that each team has created represent the kinds of technology that will drive our industry to a greener future,” said Elizabeth Lowery, GM’s vice president of environment, energy and safety policy. “At GM, we are reinventing the automobile and the company, and green technology solutions are key to the reinvention.”

Lowery said the EcoCar competition is necessary for the company’s future success.

On June 1, GM filed for bankruptcy protection, the fourth-largest such filing in U.S. history. Since then, the U.S. government has assumed a majority ownership stake in the company. GM has manufacturing facilities in the United States and Canada. Together, the governments have provided the company with nearly $40 billion in cash assistance. Despite hardships, GM’s leadership has committed to “greener” cars and, as part of this commitment, supports advanced-vehicle technology competitions like EcoCar.

In fact, says the Ohio State team, GM is doubling its support.

“In terms of making available engines and transmissions, electric motors and fuel-cell power systems, it is unprecedented,” said Shawn Midlam-Mohler, a research scientist and the Ohio State team’s faculty adviser. “They’re not pulling any punches here.”

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