BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Lynn Gantt is bracing his team for the final year of a very high-stakes competition. He is one of two team leaders on Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's EcoCar project, a three-year vehicle design contest sponsored by the Department of Energy. They are preparing for a kind of alchemy: Students at 16 universities across North America are supposed to re-engineer a 2009 Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle, donated to each team by General Motors Co., into the fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicle of the future. This is a stress test for budding engineers. At the completion of year two, less than half of the teams were able to pass the safety inspection necessary to compete.