Ride of a lifetime: UW students shape next-generation cars

SEATTLE -- The drive to create cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars has students at the University of Washington revved up and ready to roll over their competition in a nationwide challenge focused on finding new solutions in the automotive industry.

"A lot of things are being done here that have never been done before," Brendan Boyer says. "These students are world experts in the future of hybrid control."

Boyer is part of UW's team, one of 15 across the country vying for first place in the EcoCAR 2 competition. Developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors, EcoCAR 2 is a three-year college engineering challenge designed to educate and produce the next generation of automotive engineers, or as Brian Fabien likes to say, the people who are going to save us.

"They will know what is involved in producing vehicles, not just cars, all types of vehicles, that are energy efficient, use very low levels of petroleum and that provide the features consumers want," says Fabien, a professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty advisor for the UW EcoCAR2 team.

General Motors provided each of the teams with a Chevy Malibu, and the students have spent the last three years re-engineering the car, working on different techniques and systems to reduce fuel consumption and limit greenhouse gas emissions.

"You will never see our car on showroom floor," Boyer says. "But, what you will see is technology developed in the car showing up in the auto industry as a whole over the next five to 10 years."

More than 30 students from 14 different departments make up UW's team. Fabien, recognized as Outstanding Incoming Faculty Advisor during the first year of the competition, says this project is by the far the most difficult student-led project he's ever been involved with. He says the experience the students get from the project can't be replicated in any classroom.

"They have access to tools being used in the industry to solve real problems," he says. "They have access to engineers from a variety of disciplines. This is a real world systems design and industry project and there is nothing like it in the landscape of education."

In the past two years, Fabien says a number of students involved in the project have graduated and gone on to work for Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Argonne National Laboratory - each helping set new standards for the use of clean energy in the automotive industry.

The UW EcoCAR 2 team is in the final year of the competition and the focus now is on refining the car's design and testing the car to make sure it is as efficient as possible.

The team's hybrid features a diesel engine connected to the front axle and an electric motor connected to the rear axle, which gives the car more power and the capability to reach nearly 59 miles per gallon.

The competition's grand finale is this coming June. The UW EcoCAR 2 team will spend one week at GM's proving grounds in Michigan where their car will be put through a series of tests and challenges. The second week of the competition will be spent at the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, D.C. There the team will work to convince the judges their hybrid design is the best design of the 15 schools involved.

Fabien says while UW is up against schools with some very distinguished automotive technology programs, the UW was the only first-time team in the competition to deliver a working hybrid model last year and complete a 100-mile emissions test.

"Our vehicle is running and working well," he says. "We just need to fine tune it."

You can follow the team's progress by visiting UW EcoCAR 2 online.