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, fewer than half of the teams were able to pass the safety inspection necessary to compete.
Gantt's team has moved up into a potential winning position, placing sixth in year one and second in year two. But in this sport, even losers can win big. Graduates from these DOE competitions often move on to high-paying, industry-shaping jobs. As electric cars are about to hit the showrooms, a program that always tried to experiment with the future finds itself almost in it.
Over their 23-year history, these vehicle competitions have absorbed some 16,000 students. Initially, the program worked to advance technologies that would promote alternative fuels as part of DOE's mission to displace the nation's petroleum consumption. Now it's re-engineering students to focus on a worldwide competition for the fast-growing automotive market.
"We shifted the focus more on trying to design and develop the most real-world engineering activity to create the next generation of engineers," said Kristen De La Rosa, who directs the vehicle competitions for DOE through Argonne National Laboratory. "There are things that are pushing the envelope, and there are some innovations [out of the competitions], but it's not necessarily creating the 'Car of the Future' anymore," she said.
U.S. hybrids came before the Prius
De La Rosa first got involved with the DOE competitions through the Propane Vehicle Challenge in 1996, on behalf of one of the contest's sponsors, the Railroad Commission of Texas. The following year, she joined Argonne as a competition-level organizer. She began directing the program about four years ago.
DOE ran a hybrid electric vehicle competition using donated Dodge Neons in 1994 -- three years before the Toyota Prius was on sale in Japan. But looking over their long history, said De La Rosa, the competitions have "tried to help push this type of technology in the industry."
But with more than a dozen new hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles expected to roll off assembly lines over the next year, mainstreaming has created new challenges for the program. "As for being out in front of industry, we're having a hard enough time even staying industry-relevant," said De La Rosa.
Industry doesn't think that the competitions are in any danger of becoming irrelevant. This is partly because many of the student participants have graduated into the auto industry itself.
Aaron Sullivan, GM's lead development engineer supporting advanced hybrids and its EcoCar technical lead, took part in DOE's Future Car Challenge and was hired immediately after completing his master's degree. Sullivan said that he went so far as to postpone his start date with GM in order to see the competition to its end.
The structure of the more recent competitions has also taken on an increasingly industry-like mold to keep up with the times. In the early days, many of the competitions only ran for a year, maybe two.
But the three-year structure of the EcoCar competition (and DOE's next, plug-in hybrid-friendly competition, EcoCar2) is based on GM's simulation-construction-refinement process for vehicle development.
As to whether the student projects still introduce new ideas into an industry that is considerably more sophisticated, Sullivan said, "It may not be the orders of magnitude, compared to the production vehicles, that it was in '97, for example, but there's still an opportunity for them to give a fresh perspective."
Racing to stay ahead of the mainstream
Asked if he would expect an automaker to incorporate any of his team's designs, Gantt, the Virginia Tech co-team leader, said, "Not going to happen! But they can hire me and I can put it in."
"What we used to be doing that was so unique is now getting to become so mainstream," said Robert Larsen, the founder of the student competitions and director emeritus of Argonne's Center for Transportation Research. "In a way, that's success."
In the past, Larsen said, after industry sponsors donated vehicles, the students basically tore everything out and began anew. "Where we're at now is more of a kind of surgical replacement of key components," he said.
Part of the original "vision" for the program was to bridge the gap between different engineering departments at universities, Larsen said. As the different engineering departments began working together, industry also happened to get more interested. In the past, the students were also far more limited in what technology they had access to. "There's no lack of good ideas at the university level," said Larsen, "but getting access to the material technology and the actual components to execute them, that's the hard part."
That changed not too long after sales of the Prius took off in North America. Larsen said that, when it came to hybrids, the question facing the U.S. auto industry was: "Where are we going to get the people who know anything about these?" By this point, the competitions had already experimented with training young engineers in hybrid powertrains.
"[The competitions have] been a major factor in the evolution of teaching systems-level thinking and skills to engineers at universities around the country," Larsen said. In connecting different engineering departments and pushing an increasingly hands-on approach, he said, "Quite honestly, I do credit these competitions for changing the way engineering is taught in U.S."
He continued: "The Chinese churn out 30,000 automotive engineers every year, and 1 percent of them know how to drive." American engineering education has benefited from teaching students to get their hands dirty and learn from their mistakes.
But, he said, in terms of automotive technology, "We're getting to the point where all the low-hanging fruit has pretty well been harvested."
Jump-starting Mississippi State
In year two, Mississippi State University blew away the competition, winning more than a dozen awards and scoring 844 points out of a possible 1,000. MSU also has access to a highly sophisticated state-run automotive research center on campus.
The facility at MSU came into being as a result of discussions between the state of Mississippi and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. when the company was deciding whether to set up a new manufacturing plant in the state. In building the research facility, the state hoped to persuade Nissan to bring jobs to Mississippi by showing the company that it would help produce a highly skilled work force (ClimateWire, June 15).
Part of MSU's success, said De La Rosa, the vehicle competition director, was the multiple avenues of support the team received. "That's what it takes to do this," she said. "You have to have that village behind you, or you're not going to make it work."
Two decades of vehicle competitions have led schools to pour millions of dollars into advanced testing and research facilities. In Blacksburg, Va. -- without automotive resources nearly as sophisticated as those of other campuses -- the air felt tired, but lighthearted.
Things haven't gotten all that tense yet for the Virginia Tech EcoCar team. Gantt, the co-team leader and second-year master's student, said he puts in 40 to 60 hours per week supervising and working with his team under Doug Nelson, a professor of mechanical engineering and the team's faculty adviser. Nelson has had a team participate in the DOE competitions since 1994.
Doing all-nighters to get to 100 mpg
In the weeks and months leading up to competition in the spring, however, the work week easily reaches 100 hours, Gantt said. "This is a 24-hour lab," he said, and when competition approaches, "we use every bit of it." (In the lab, resting on the floor, was the removed rear seat of a Chevy Equinox. The gray leather three-seater, barely 4 feet long, was lovingly called "the couch" and is apparently where members of the team sleep during the late-night shifts.)
Competition promises to be stiff this year. Each team must bring its vehicle to near-showroom quality for the final year. But when Gantt and Patrick Walsh, another second-year master's student and Gantt's co-team leader, met with their sub-team leaders, everyone seemed at ease.
Gantt said the team members are working to fix a problem they had with a malfunctioning controller that wouldn't let the vehicle run all-electric for the first 47 miles, as they intended. Instead, it ran as a mere off-the-shelf gas-electric hybrid during the whole competition, crippling their emissions and fuel-efficiency scores.
He said they will have the problem fixed in time and predicted that their Saturn Vue will have a fuel economy equivalent to more than 100 mpg of gasoline.
On whether the students felt industry was playing too heavily in their education, one sub-team leader said, "So what if they're training us to work for them? Who wouldn't want their industry involved in their education?" Just about everyone among the team and sub-team leaders has a job offer from industry, including from GM and General Electric Co. Many have also done summer internships with auto-related companies.
They were impressed but also unfazed by Mississippi State University's whole-state, high-tech approach to the competition. Another sub-team leader said, "Ohio State [University]" -- which also has an advanced automotive research facility -- "had more people and more money [than us], but we beat them, too."
More than creating new designs or conducting advanced research, what they all learned from the competition, team members said, was that it's OK to fail -- sometimes over and over again -- and yet succeed in the end.