EcoCar Drives Students to Innovate

The Department of Energy, through the Recovery Act, is investing in more fuel-efficient lithium ion batteries and electric vehicles to reduce these costs and training a strong, talented workforce to develop these cleaner, more sustainable technologies. Recognizing the importance of engaging students in this endeavor, the Department of Energy and General Motors (GM) established the EcoCar Challenge – a three-year Advanced Vehicle technology competition for undergraduate and graduate students.

Teams from 16 North American universities are competing to design a fuel-efficient vehicle that minimizes emissions while maximizing consumer appeal, safety and performance. I recently had the chance to spend time with these bright and enthusiastic students at EcoCar’s Fall Workshop, which marks the third year of the competition.

The competition has built students’ skills throughout its three years. During the first year, students used real-world modeling tools developed by the Department and its laboratories to design and test advanced vehicle powertrains. Each team chose a different design, including hybrid flex-fuel vehicles, extended range electric vehicles, all-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

All of the vehicles used some alternative energy source, whether electricity or a biofuel blend. In the second year, the students brought these powertrains into the real world, integrating them into vehicles donated by GM. In the third and final year, the teams are bringing their vehicles up to near-production level, aiming for consumer safety, reliability and performance.” Throughout all three years, outreach coordinators from each team have worked to inform other students and the public about the benefits of advanced technology vehicles.

The Fall Workshop equipped the teams with the tools they needed to make this year a success. Mechanical engineers learned how their vehicles will be tested for consumer acceptability, towing and acceleration. Students focusing on electrical controls – the “brains” of the vehicle – attended sessions on mathematical modeling and electronic control units. Outreach coordinators participated in media training and discussions on public relations. In my time with the outreach coordinators, I recommended new, innovative ways for them to collaborate with Clean Cities, the sister initiative I work on in the Department’s Vehicle Technologies Program.

In June, the teams will face a final round of tests and awards. First, they’ll run the vehicles in real-world conditions at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan. Next, they’ll move to Washington, DC to present their technical and outreach results to judges. The entire competition will wrap up with a vehicle display at Department of Energy headquarters and an awards ceremony.

Although this year marks the end of the EcoCar Challenge, the endeavor to develop new fuel-efficient vehicles will continue with EcoCar 2: Plugging into the Future. This entirely new competition will begin in Fall 2011. The Department’s Argonne National Laboratory is now accepting Expressions of Interest from universities and will issue an official Request for Proposals in November. So, if you’re a college student and want hands-on, real-world experience designing the cars of the future, encourage your university to participate in EcoCar 2!

Shannon Brescher Shea is the Communications Manager for Clean Cities, in the Vehicle Technologies Program, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.