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University students learn product development at Eco Car Challenge

Wed, 16 Mar 2011

The Eco Car Challenge spring workshop had a flavor of cutting-edge environmental technologies in advanced prototypes--developed by students.

The event, at the Environmental Protection Agency's laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., allowed journalists to get behind the wheel of these test cars. It was part of a competition among 16 North American universities to design, develop and build vehicles that are forward-looking yet practical.

The prototypes were based on midsize SUV platforms donated by General Motors. The teams took the same underpinnings and went in different directions, offering different angles, perspectives and answers to the ever-evolving answer to automotive efficiency.

"In addition to the actual product development, we are also out teaching and educating people about the benefits of hybrid technology and improved efficiency," said Michelle Taylor, a science and technology outreach coordinator from Missouri University.

In tandem with the outreach, the vehicles and technology represent a portion of the competition. The teams use a holistic approach as they participate in the same steps as GM's global vehicle-development process for a vehicle launch. Students work with a GM engineering mentor, who provides real-world support and advice for product development.

"This program includes strong support in the outreach and technology areas," said Kimberly DeClark of Argonne National Labs, one of the competition's organizers. "We conduct media training for the students and they go through all the steps, from design to release for a vehicle, just like GM would."

A team from Virginia Tech was on hand to answer questions and let journalists behind the wheel of its Chevrolet hybrid named VT-REX.

"Our vehicle is a range-extended split parallel hybrid," said team lead Lynn Gantt. "It uses E85 ethanol and a large electric battery pack. In our model, we've seen petroleum usage reduced by 90 percent and a 30 percent carbon emissions reduction as well."

This type of system allows the driver to select between the all-electric mode or to utilize the E85-powered four-cylinder for assistance. In all-electric mode, the vehicle is capable of traveling 70 miles.

When behind the wheel of the VT-REX in all-electric mode, the only noticeable difference from a regular SUV is the silence. The acceleration, feel and sensations of driving are not lost in this hybrid.

"Like most gasoline engines, when you let off the accelerator, it uses decompression of the engine to slow down. Electric vehicles don't have that," said Gantt. "Through development in our vehicle, we are able to simulate that effect so it feels like a normal car."

The final portion of the three-year competition ends in June with vehicle evaluation at the GM proving grounds in Milford, Mich. Visit for more information.

By David Arnouts