EcoCar 2 Competition Offers Students the Chance to Drive Future of Hybrid Cars

Students from 15 universities—including Wayne State University—are currently battling it out in the EcoCar 2 competition, which is sponsored by General Motors, the U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, and 20 other industry and government entities. It offers participants the chance to gain real-world automotive engineering skills as they strive to improve the fuel efficiency of donated 2013 Chevy Malibus.

John Haraf, director of hybrid vehicle integration for GM, calls the three-year competition a “one-of-a-kind chance” to offer students a hands-on experience building the next generation of automobiles. But the competition isn’t about generating new ideas, Haraf says, as much as it’s about giving prospective employees a taste of working within the global vehicle development process. “The biggest reason we’re so involved is to be able to train and prepare the auto engineers of the future,” Haraf adds. “The goal is to reduce the automobile’s environmental impact without compromising performance or safety.”

Each team designed its own unique plug-in hybrid electric vehicle architecture, Haraf says, and will crowd-source the powertrain components it will integrate into the vehicle. The competition, which began in August 2011, is made possible through $745 million in equipment and cash donations. EcoCar 2 will hold its Year One contest in Los Angeles in May, where teams will be judged on electrical, hardware,  and mechanical work, as wells as outreach and business skills.

“In Year One, the teams demonstrate they can simulate their vehicle systems on the tools we provide,” Haraf says. “After that, we hand them the keys to the Malibu and they’ll incorporate their analytical model.” Students can alter the level of the vehicle’s hybridization depending on what engine components and transmissions they choose, and each team is given $25,000 in seed money to get them started. The competition isn’t just for engineers, though—each team must understand the business of vehicle cost and consumer acceptability, which is why most of them include a member who is a marketing student.

The real challenge, says Jerry Ku, advisor to Wayne State’s team, is to decide whether to outfit the competition vehicles with brand-new technology and risk not being able to deliver in Year Two or Year Three, or go with established technology (often provided by sponsors) and risk having an underwhelming final product.

Ku says the Wayne State team has 40 total members with a core group of 15 people. Because Wayne State has a graduate program in electric vehicle engineering, the team has more graduate students than most. Ku says the most valuable part of the experience is that students will participate in something that isn’t taught in school. “The competition is about modifying the combustion engine to use in a hybrid electric vehicle, and that isn’t something anybody teaches in a curriculum,” Ku adds. “This is best combination of hands-on experience from the classroom and on-the-job training—it’s very close to what they’ll be doing when they’re hired by [an auto manufacturer]. They’ll have a leg up on other students in terms of employability.”

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