Last Thursday, two student-built extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs) placed first and second overall out of 16 North American college teams entered in the three-year competition known as EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge.

Sponsored by General Motors, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through the Argonne National Laboratory, and about two dozen other supporters, the awards given at the Library of Congress saw first and second overall go to a pair of E85/electric-powered conversions from Virginia Tech and The Ohio State University respectively. Third place went to the University of Waterloo, which fielded a hydrogen fuel cell-based, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Fourth, fifth and sixth overall places were rounded out in order by Penn State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Mississippi State University.

Virginia Tech's winning car takes a slalom drive at the Milford Proving Grounds, Mich. Note all the sponsors that were instrumental in helping all the teams.

The broad goal for the challenge begun May 2008 was to reduce a production crossover vehicle’s environmental impact by improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions, while retaining the vehicle’s performance and consumer appeal.

Each team had been given its choice of a hybrid or standard internal combustion engine 2009 Saturn Vue as baseline vehicles – that were subsequently re-badged Chevrolet EcoCARs following GM’s restructuring.

After formulating a plan, the teams gutted the vehicles' powertrains for a ground-up rebuild with most opting for some variation of petrol-electric, although the University of Ontario Institute of Technology went for all electric. The overall presentations were graded on a number of weighted criteria beyond efficiency and emissions reduction.

While "best tailpipe emissions" went to Missouri University of Science and Technology, Virginia Tech was helped by having the "best fuel consumption" of 81.9 mpg, a 70-percent improvement, and scored well in enough other criteria for the overall win.

First place winners.

“Designing an extended-range electric vehicle using E85 was challenging, but clearly worth it in the end," said Patrick Walsh, co-team leader for Virginia Tech. "The entire team has put so much time and effort into designing and refining our vehicle, and we've gained valuable knowledge and hands-on experience that will prepare us for our engineering careers."

As they saw fit, the teams approached the project with a variety of internal combustion powertrains including a turbocharged 750cc engine, a number of 1.3-liter versions, 1.6 liter, 1.8 liter, the 2.4 liter in the winning car up to a 3.9 liter. Likewise, a variety of electric powertrains from one to three electric motors were used, along with batteries, hardware, software, and everything else involved in re-engineering the former Saturns.

As for all images, click to expand for larger viewing.

While the central theme of the undergraduate/graduate-student project was engineering, also involved were business students, communications, and other majors working in complementary functions. These included building a Web site, promoting their teams’ cars, answering media inquiries, interacting with vendors, and more. Here is a list of many more awards granted .

In short, this was one extensive learning experience for students who got a real taste for much of what an automaker – particularly GM – goes through to research and develop an advanced-tech vehicle, prove the concept, and test it all the way until ready for production.

Second place finishers.

Around triple the number of colleges had attempted to enter the EcoCAR Challenge. We were not able to find out by deadline why more were not permitted, but imagine it was limited because resources were finite, and the project was comprehensive enough with 16 teams.

As it is, it was a terrific opportunity. According to GM EcoCAR spokesperson Kaileen Connelly, GM has already hired about 40 of the students from various schools, recently interviewed a dozen more, and has job offers pending with 11 of these. Additional students involved with the competition have accepted jobs with other companies as well. Others are going on with respectable bullet points on their resumes for having been part of this most recent among similar competitions the DOE has sponsored for 23 years, and GM has sponsored for over 15 years.

The Challenge

Outside-of-the box thinking was encouraged by removing some of the deadline pressures to be found in real world development. Otherwise, the competition was based on GM’s vehicle development process (VDP) and was broken into three academic years.

Year 1: Vehicle architectures were selected using modeling and simulation, and hardware-in-the loop (HIL) systems are assembled to develop and test the team’s control strategies
Year 2:Virtual designs were turned into functioning prototype vehicles
Year 3:Vehicles were refined to near-showroom quality

Year one was preparation for hands on with the cars which would come later. First thing the students did was learn real-world automotive engineering practices by using Model-Based Design as well as graphical system design technologies. These included HIL and Software in Loop (SIL) to enable concepts to make it to the road.

Third place finishers.

In year two, the teams received their GM-donated “mule vehicles” and began integrating powertrain and subsystems. The team had access to GM engineers, and were mentored and given feedback along the way. They also competed their developing vehicles in engineering tests similar to those GM conducts in determining a vehicle’s readiness for production.

Year three was about refinement into near production quality prototypes. The teams showcased their vehicles’ reduced greenhouse gases and improved fuel economy at the Year Three Competition Finals in Milford, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. from June 5-16. The vehicles were put through more than a dozen static and dynamic test events.

The winning setup

Virginia Tech’s car is remarkable in that it had more than twice the displacement of some competitors, yet topped the fuel consumption category. It was not necessary to have the highest mpg to win, but the 70-percent improvement was.

Winners all.

Virginia Tech’s car is a “split parallel” EREV. It uses batteries supplied by A123 – one of the several A-list sponsors for this conspicuous investment in American engineering talent. The cells can be recharged with house current. All-electric drive power comes from a rear axle-mounted 125 kW UQM permanent magnet electric motor with regenerative braking capability. After the battery power is depleted, the 2.4 L GM FlexFuel engine provides additional driving range via multi-speed automatic transmission on the front axle. A second 8 kW MES-DEA electric motor is used as a belted alternator starter to allow for engine idle-stop, electric energy generation, and engine loading.

Mutual benefit

The students are seen as some of the cutting edge future engineers this country so badly needs if it is to remain competitive, and they received a fair share of support from vendors.

Vendor participation had solid public relations value for the companies that supplied students with resources and materials their schools’ might not have otherwise been able to afford.

The ongoing consultation with real working professional engineers at GM was an equally big plus for the students, according to Connelly. While the primary goal was the students’ education, the deal was win-win, as GM and others learned in the process of working with fresh thinking on live projects. Undoubtedly it was especially worth it for GM and others which benefited from new hires culled from what amounted to a three-year job interview.

Perhaps GM even learned some things to employ in its own Voltec based SUV we reported as possibly due to be revealed next January in Detroit.

Surely GM engineers involved saw good, better and best approaches with such a variety of talented students given virtual carte blanche to improve the platform.

For more details, including build info on the rest of the cars, judging criteria, and much more, check the links below – particularly the downloadable pdf. Also Green Garage blog and EcoCAR Web site are good sources. Abundant photos on Flickr are linked as well.

PRNewswire press release , 40-page pdf with details on the competition, respective teams, and more , Ecocar Web site , Green Garage blog , photos[/URL] ,