The South's rising in the environmentally friendly auto world

Necessary parts did not arrive on time and more than 80 student volunteers -- who came and went as they pleased -- contributed to the creative tension. But none of this disrupted the well-laid plans of Mississippi State University's engineers to win the Department of Energy's EcoCar competition.

EcoCar is the latest in a long line of student competitions put on by DOE that are designed to push the limits of vehicle design by tapping into the unconventional knowledge found on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Over the course of the three-year EcoCar competition, students try to cram the most fuel-efficient technologies available into a 2009 Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle, donated to each team by General Motors Co.

Each year of the contest is designed to evaluate a different stage of vehicle development. Last year, MSU placed third for its design simulations. Ohio State University placed first, and University of Victoria (Canada) placed second.

However, this year -- the second year of the EcoCar contest -- each team was required to put their concepts on the road and provide a functional, drivable, upgraded Saturn Vue. This played to MSU's strengths.

"Implementation," said Roger King, director of MSU's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, "that's where we excel." Although he was a little surprised that MSU placed at the very top of the EcoCar competition, King said he was confident that the technologies at at the center gave the team an edge.

Making an SUV get 118 mpg


Among the rare instruments available to the MSU team was a chassis dynamometer. The dynamometer allows users to fasten a test vehicle down to a stationary "terrain" whose topography can be altered through computer software. Using the dynamometer, the team was able to subject its SUV to steep inclines and rough surfaces without leaving the building.

The MSU team, led by professor Marshall Molen and graduate student Matthew Doude, swept the competition on May 27. It earned an overall score of 844 out of a possible 1,000 points. In total, sixteen universities across North America are active participants of the EcoCar project. Virginia Tech placed second with 691 points, and Pennsylvania State University scored 620 points, for third.

The team earned a perfect score in a number of judging criteria, which are based on the California Air Resources Board's zero emission vehicle regulations. Test vehicles were evaluated on everything from tailpipe emissions to fuel consumption to marketing technique. The tests were conducted at General Motor's Desert Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz.

MSU's winning design was for an extended-range electric vehicle, or EREV. It used a 21.3-kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of 60 miles, which was supported by a turbocharged 1.3-liter biodiesel engine that powered a 75-kilowatt generator. The vehicle achieved a fuel economy equivalent of 118 miles per gallon of gasoline.

No one in Mississippi seemed to miss the irony of the situation: The South does not have a strong car history -- at least, not until recently.

"Before Nissan came in," Molen said, "there was no automotive culture to speak of." Molen led a winning team through the Energy Department's previous car competition, the four-year Challenge X. During that contest, Doude, the current EcoCar team leader, was also a participant.

A push from Nissan

In 1983, Nissan Motor Co. setup its first plant in the South, in Smyrna, Tenn. But the car industry remained fairly stagnate over the next 15 years or so. That changed in the past decade.

The state-run vehicle research center at MSU, came into being as a result of discussions between the state of Mississippi and Nissan, when the company was deciding whether or not to set up a new manufacturing plant in the state. In building the research facility, the state hoped it could persuade Nissan to bring jobs to Mississippi by proving it would help produce a highly skilled workforce.

The center opened in 2002. Nissan opened a production plant the following year, in Canton, Miss., about 100 miles southwest of the campus. Since that time, the American South has become the new center of car manufacturing, mainly for foreign companies.

King said many are waiting for the official unveiling of Toyota's new plant in Blue Springs, Miss. -- the first in the U.S. to roll out the Prius.

For the third and final year of the competition, each team must bring its vehicle to almost showroom quality.

Next year, the landscape will look a little different to MSU. In order to manage the swarm of students working on the project, the MSU EcoCar leadership was divided into six groups, plus Doude as overall team leader.

Half of the group leaders will be leaving the team for internships and other opportunities. Despite the shedding of some of the team's core knowledge, Doude said during a post-competition Web chat, the team's plan is "to bring in some fresh blood."

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