EcoCar2: Plugging into
the Future


Thanks to a still-alive-and-kicking General Motors, Ohio State University mechanical engineering graduate student Katherine Bovee is virtually assured a job in automotive engineering once she finishes her schooling. GM is a joint sponsor, with the Department of Energy, of the EcoCar2 competition, a three year competition in which student teams from 15 universities battle it out to turn a 2013 GM-donated car into the sweetest environmentally friendly ride it can be. Bovee says it has given her "invaluable experience to figure out how cars are built in the real world."

And based on the success of those EcoCar alums who've gone on to great jobs, Bovee, a veteran of the competition's first round, in which her team finished second, is gratefully confident she, too, will find work once she finishes her Ph.D. "For EcoCar teams so far, it's not a question of they need a job and can't find anything. It's more they've got multiple offers and don't know which to accept."

Grooming the next generation of automotive engineers is what the competition is all about. The latest in a 24-year string of Department of Energy vehicle competitions, EcoCar2 challenges teams of engineering (electrical, mechanical, computer), business, and communications students to retrofit a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu in order to reduce fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and other criteria such as tailpipe emissions without sacrificing the car's performance, utility, and safety.

To do so, the EcoCar2 teams, who have spent year one of the competition designing their vehicles, are exploring various power train architectures. They range from a parallel through the road approach, in which the engine turns two of the wheels and electricity drives the others, to the series parallel scheme, which Bovee and her OSU team members are using. In that architecture, the engine can either be hooked to the wheels or not while electric power from the battery drives the motor. As for fuel, none of the cars use gasoline and run instead on B20 (a biodiesel), E85 (an 85% ethanol-gasoline blend), and hydrogen.

"We should get some very interesting results," says the DOE's Patrick Davis, manager of the Vehicle Technologies Program, especially given that this is the first time that all 15 teams have chosen plug-in hybrid technology. "We'll see five different approaches to improving one common car and within those subcategories very different ways to use them."

EcoCar2: Plugging into the Future - Student Competitions

Katherine Bovee and team meet with President Obama to discuss the Ecocar2. Image: Ecocar2

Nevertheless, Davis points out, the competition deliverable that matters most is not the cars the teams create but the future-minded engineers they become in the process. As its investment in the next generation of auto engineers, GM provides not only the car but also training in its three-year vehicle development process behind every new GM model. Student teams also have their own GM senior management mentor to link them to all the GM resources, including in-person and online training workshops, as well as access to the Arizona desert and Milford, MI, proving grounds where all GM vehicles are road-tested.

"It's a great opportunity for them to see firsthand how we do what we do in real life," says GM's Kent E. Helfrich, executive director, electronic controls and software engineering. "The GM engineering and technology staff love working with the students, who are some of the best engineers I've encountered. I can drop them into any program we have, the most unconstrained ambitious thing we have going, and they are up to the task"

And when they struggle, says Helfrich, the potential for learning is that much greater. "I just love watching the underdogs, who have their backs up against wall, and at the last minute pull themselves together and do it. That's often how great products get to market."

EcoCar2: Plugging into the Future - Student Competitions

Team member uses CAD to design the hybrid vehicle.
Image: Ecocar2

When it comes to challenges, says Bovee, who as her team's leader is writing the software that controls their car, the competition is all about operating outside the comfort zone. "It's always tough for college students to build a really nice car in three years," says Bovee who with her team has spent this past year on design and planning how they would add then control the components of their dream car. In year two, after getting the keys to the Malibu, they'll break the car down to the chassis and metal frame to make room for the new bells and whistles—like the battery packs from sponsor A123 and Parker Hannifin electric motors. By end of year two, the new vehicle should run, allowing an entire final year for refining all the mechanical, electrical, and control systems—and making the car look and drive like something consumers would be proud to own.

While Bovee and her engineer teammates are confident in their technical abilities, just as in real-life auto engineering, they rely heavily on their business and communication colleagues to get the word out about their ideas. Year one of the competition culminates in Los Angeles from May 18-23, when students will unveil to industry and government professionals the mechanical, electrical, control, and hardware-in-the-loop strategies of their designs as well as their plans for outreach and business development as they compete for $100,000 in cash prizes. Outreach efforts continue throughout the three years, for although EcoCar teams receive sponsor equipment donations and seed money, says Davis, "They have to continue to go out and raise money, which gives them invaluable financing and business experience."

The teams also give frequent talks to schools and community groups about hybrid cars and environmentally friendly automotive engineering. Having the communications and business majors—who comprise roughly 15% of the team—onboard to help get the word out, says Bovee, is "a huge advantage. We engineers can get so caught up in the technical aspects that we forget you can have the greatest idea in the world but if you can't market and sell it, it's useless."

Recently Bovee's sales skills were put to the test when she and her six teammates were given just four days to prepare for President Obama's March 22nd visit to OSU's Center for Auto Research. But once the President stood before them and the car she and her EcoCar1 teammates had built, everyone was ready for the Presidential once-over.

"He asked all the student teams "What have you learned? What challenges did you face? How did you tackle problems when they came up?'" recalls Bovee, who was unaware of any political subtext. Still, after expending considerable financial and political capital on the automotive rescue, the President had to have liked seeing more proof, in GM's commitment to EcoCar and to students like Bovee, his bet paid off.

"He was really focused on making sure we are getting the education this country needs to be at the top of the science and technology fields over the coming years."

Marion Hart is an independent writer.

For EcoCar teams so far, it's not a question of they need a job and can't find anything. It's more they've got multiple offers and don't know which to accept.

Katherine Bovee, Ohio State University


April 2012

by Marion Hart,