Photograph By: Roy Feldman
Wendy Koch, USA TODAY
How feasible is it to engineer a car that gets the equivalent of nearly 82 miles-per-gallon? Quite, for a team of students from Virginia Tech University who won first place in a U.S. car contest.
The team beat out students from 15 other North American universities in the three-year "EcoCAR" competition, co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors. It started with a GM-donated engine from a 2009 Chevy HHR and added a battery and electric motor. It made other tweaks, too, such as eliminating engine idle.
"I definitely did not plan on first place. It's a nice surprise," says Lynn Gantt, Virginia Tech's team leader who just finished his master's degree in mechanical engineering. He says the car can go 50 miles on its battery and another 155 on gasoline, including a 15% ethanol blend or E85. The redesigned car boosted the fuel achieving of the stock engine by 70%.
"The ingenuity and dedication shown by the students of Virginia Tech in building this next-generation vehicle will help them launch careers as leaders in the clean energy field," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement Friday that announced the winners. DOE has sponsored university car challenges for 23 years, with a different theme and name every three or so years.
Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, took second place in the third and final year of this competition, also with an E85 electric car, and the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, came in third with a hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. Their vehicles, each of which began with a stock GM engine, were tested extensively for safety, braking, acceleration, emissions, fuel consumption and other issues.
"It's an extremely competitive process," says Kimberly DeClark, spokeswoman for Argonne National Laboratories, which managed the EcoCAR challenge. She says more than 60 schools sought to compete but only 16 were chosen and given $10,000 each in seed money.
The teams focused on design during the first year, when Ohio State University placed first. They emphasized implementing that design in the second year, when Mississippi State University in Starkville, MS.,won top honors.
In this final year, they focused on refinements to make the vehicle 98% consumer acceptable, says DeClark, adding it's nearly impossible to satisfy 100% of consumers. She says the cars won't be commercially produced but there are "many applications for these technologies."
Gantt says Virginia Tech's car will be used by its students in Blacksburg, Va., when they begin design work on EcoCAR 2, the next three-year challenge. He says the current team consisted of 30 mechanical engineering students, six of whom are doing post-graduate work and the rest just obtained their bachelor's degrees.
He's going to work for GM in Michigan, along with five other team members. Since he recently spent 60 to 80 hours a week on the EcoCAR challenged, he won't start his job until mid-July, adding:. "I have a month to get some sleep."