Automotive technology is advancing by leaps and bounds and with every new breakthrough in energy storage, materials or electronics, the gap between science fiction and reality gets narrower. So training car engineers to continue this crucial work into the future can no longer rely on traditional classrooms and textbooks. That's why collegiate engineering competitions like the EcoCar Challenge are more important than ever. The 2011 finals have just ended and we were proud to take part in the judging, so let's tally up the results.
EcoCar is a 3-year competition in which 16 North American college teams were challenged to improve the emissions and fuel economy of a GM SUV while retaining all of its utility, safety and performance.
Teams were allowed to select their own drive train architectures, and chosen technologies included full-electrics, plug-in hybrids, fuel cells, and extended range electric vehicles.
After a year of modeling and simulation, teams were given their vehicles for year two, and began implementing their designs. But the students also had to think real-world in terms of packaging their components, fit and finish, drivability and consumer acceptance.
Headline sponsor General Motors provided the vehicles as well as mentoring support for each team, and allowed the competition to mimic its Global Vehicle Design Process, by which GM develops its own prototype vehicles. They also hosted all 16 teams for this year's finals at their Milford Proving Grounds near Detroit.
MICKY BLY: We've actually hired over 100 students out of this program over the last six years. They're now working for us and the Chevrolet Volt or our ES systems or fuel cell programs right out of school.
Other sponsors donated technical support and the advanced hardware such as battery packs, generators and control systems needed to make their designs a reality.
No two cars turned out alike, and many innovative ideas for battery packs, emission treatment and engine controls have evolved from the competition.
The US Department of Energy pitched in their own expertise and organizational muscle, with engineers from the Argonne National Lab overseeing the competition and utilizing their well-to-wheels analysis model to assess each team's environmental impact.
Year Three of the competition is when teams must show full component integration in a near-production-ready vehicle. And seeing the level of growth in every team has been eye-opening for us.
No matter what their results, the benefit for the students in terms of knowledge and expertise has been incredible.
KRISTEN DE LA ROSA: Our key objective in this competition is to have sixteen running vehicles. That's why we're here, so that they can show off their technology. So our real challenge is making sure we can maximize our resources and our people and our time and provide the best experience for these teams who have put so much into it.
After a grueling two weeks of testing and presentations, Virginia Tech claimed top team honors for 2011. Their E85 extended-range electric vehicle improved fuel economy by over 70 percent, to 81.9 miles per gasoline gallon equivalent.
Congratulations also go to The Ohio State University for 2nd place with another E85 EREV, and The University of Waterloo in 3rd position with an ambitious and fully-functioning hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu welcomed the teams to DOE Headquarters in Washington for a well-deserved Finish Line rally and marveled at the level of engineering ingenuity displayed by the student teams.
STEVEN CHU: This is what it's all about, it's about training the next generation of engineers to be competitive in the automobile industry, in the United States, so we can remain leaders in this area.
But the EcoCar Challenge doesn't end here. EcoCar2 will kick off this fall with the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu serving as the palette for a new slate of teams to demonstrate their engineering artistry.