GM, DOE pick colleges in new environmental contest

  • 04-Sep-2008 03:42 EDT

Under the hood, Saturn Vues in the EcoCar contest will change even more dramatically than this paint job.

Gen­eral Motors, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Natural Resources Canada have picked the participants for EcoCar, a contest that lets college students customize an SUV to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. The three-year contest is the successor to the ChallengeX contest that ended last year.

Teams from 14 U.S. and three Canadian universities will have to devise techniques to enhance a stock Saturn Vue to improve total efficiency. “They will be doing a wells-to-wheels analysis of energy consumption and emissions,” said Kent Helfrich, GM Powertrain Executive Lead.

EcoCar will go beyond ChallengeX, a three-year contest begun in 2004. A number of leading automotive companies are cosponsoring the contest, providing funds and equipment ranging from Freescale Semiconductors’ chips to systems gear from Delphi and Bosch.

EcoCar will focus on fuel economy and emissions, encouraging students to work toward more advanced technologies. In the coming year, the teams will get $10,000 to develop changes to their vehicles, which will be tested during the final year of the contest.  

“In the first year, they won’t have a vehicle,” said Paul Smith, Senior Manager of North American Automotive Consulting at The MathWorks. “They’ll do model-based design and math-based simulations of the controls and hardware system to determine whether those designs are worthy enough for GM to hand over the keys to a 2009 Vue.”

The new contest will focus on using many of the design tools used by automakers including GM.

“We’re bringing in both hardware-in-the-loop and software-in-the-loop,” said Connie Bezanson, a U.S. Department of Energy Program Manager. “Running HiL on very sophisticated systems from dSpace and National Instruments will be a key difference from Challenge X.”

Using these tools should help in a secondary goal for the sponsors, who hope that the contest will help prepare students so they can quickly transition from education to employment.

“From our perspective, this really helps train engineers. We hire quite a few participants from the ChallengeX contest,” Helfrich said. “This is a very high-pressure competition. When these kids enter the work force, they bring incredibly strong technical skills and intangible leadership skills.”

The contest also makes sustainability and energy conservation a central part of the young engineers’ thought processes. “They have a passion for sustainable energy sources, becoming an advocate for these technologies,” said Cindy Svestka, Powertrain Engineering Manager at GM.

The students participate in these contests to learn a basic aspect of engineering, making a better mousetrap. Their rationales for participating echo the strategies many national education programs are using to attract younger students into science and engineering, stressing the benefits that engineers can bring to society.

“As citizens, we see what’s happening with oil prices and supplies and in the environment,” said Georgia Tech University student Ryan Melsert. “As engineers, we have the tools to help us step up and solve these problems.”

The students have a lot of time to learn how to use those tools. “As a ChallengeX team member, I usually worked on the project around 40 hours a week while going to class and working two part-time jobs,” said Adam Kantor of Michigan Technological University.

Many of the students have participated in a number of contests as they prepare for careers in the auto industry. “I did my undergrad work at Oklahoma State and worked on the Formula SAE program there for four years. That was really enjoyable and should help a lot on this project,” said Ohio State University’s Robert Cooley.

Beyond these three universities, the other participants are: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Howard University, Mississippi State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, North Carolina State University, Pennsylvania State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Texas Tech University, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Victoria, University of Waterloo, University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia University.

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