Ready, Set, Innovate: The College Car Challenge That Leads to a Job

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 06, 2014

MILFORD, MICHIGAN—Katherine Bovee, the controls team lead for the Ohio State University EcoCar 2 team, knows what she’s going to do when she gets her Ph.D. “I’m going to go into the auto industry and build hybrid vehicles,” she said. It’s no pipe dream—more than 100 graduates of this deep-dive contest—a collaboration between the federal Department of Energy and auto companies that has taken various forms since 1988—have gone on to work at General Motors alone.
 Katherine Bovee, the controls team lead for the Ohio State EcoCar 2 team, is getting her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering--and a job. (Jim Motavalli photo)Since 1987, beginning with the Methanol Marathon, the Department of Energy (through it's Argonne National Laboratory) has joined with automakers in sponsoring more than 45 so-called Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions, with the joint aim of fostering alternative vehicle technologies and getting students interested in them. I try to check in as often as I can.

There are 15 colleges competing in the third year of the current three-year contest. There is $100,000 in prize money awarded, but it's not about that--99 percent of the kids are there because they love innovating and building something new.  According to Kimberly DeClark, a spokeswoman for sponsoring Argonne Labs, "There are cash prizes, awards and bragging rights, but students feel the real prize is getting a job as a result of the program." They're all working on identical 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Ecos. At least they were identical. Bovee was standing in front of her team’s car, now powered by a plug-in hybrid drivetrain featuring a high-compression 1.8-liter Honda engine originally running on compressed natural gas and a 18.9-kilowatt-hour A123 battery pack.
Ohio State, in the lead at that point, had breezed through all the day’s checks despite some engine cooling and powertrain mount issues. There are always issues; it’s rare not to see at least half the cars in some state of disassembly, and a half-dozen students with laptops and wrenches under and around it. There are rules: the students had to build a plug-in hybrid this go-round, but they had a lot of latitude in how they could accomplish that—there are fuel-cell vehicles running on hydrogen, E85 ethanol cars and biodiesel, too.
 Colorado State's team demonstrates appropriate mechanic posture. (Jim Motavalli photo)Dan Prescott, student team and controls leader at the University of Victoria (one of two Canadian teams), said his team has been able to wring an overall 84 mpg out of its Malibu. DeClark said that students are constantly making tradeoffs. For instance, they lose points if they compromise cargo space, but it’s offset if the choice improves performance.
Prescott has a job all lined up—at an electric bus start-up in Vancouver—and he credits EcoCar 2 with getting him in. “I already had exposure to controls issues,” he said. “Two of the other people starting with me are also from EcoCar.” Recruiters know that graduates are good under fire—theVictoria team’s E85 ethanol car stopped running a half mile after making it through the drivability test, but now under the clock it was running again.
 The teams started with identical Chevy Malibu Ecos. (Jim Motavalli photo)There are even romances that start through EcoCar. Cheyenne Sexton and her fiancée are both Penn State graduates, but they met through EcoCar, and now they’re moving to Detroit, he for a job at GM, she for a PR position. “All we talk about is hybrid cars,” she said.
Colorado State’s fuel-cell car is definitely the most exotic entrant. According to Tom Bradley, the team’s faculty advisor, it’s something new—a hydrogen plug-in hybrid, with 50 miles of battery electric range and 300 miles on the fuel cell. The layout grew out of efficiency studies Colorado participated in, and Bradley is convinced production hydrogen hybrids could be built for less cost than a full battery or fuel-cell car. “We’re going beyond cars like the Chevrolet Volt to show what cars could be like in 2030,” he said.
 Colorado State faculty advisor Tom Bradley shows off the three carbon-fiber hydrogen tanks in the trunk of his fuel-cell car. (Jim Motavalli photo)Bradley, now a mechanical engineering professor at Colorado State, says he was probably headed for a career in aerospace before he got involved in EcoCar as a student at the University of California, Davis under hybrid car pioneer Andy Frank. “As students, we had the resources to put our visions into reality,” he said. “It was inspiring.” DeClark points out that some schools have added auto-based curriculums as a result of the program, and Colorado is one of those.
The energy is palpable in the main garage floor, as the teams fine-tune their vehicles. Far from proving their generation’s slacker image, they have to be ordered to go to bed and stay there.
Although males are more numerous, women are on every team. Yessenia Toscano is a mechanical engineering major with a minor in engineering at California State University in Los Angeles. “My passion is designing vehicles and testing them from start to finish,” she said, adding that she grew up in Pasadena with a bunch of cousins who were mechanics.
 Hoists came in handy for Cal State's team at GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan. (Jim Motavalli photo)“The competition has enabled me to apply the knowledge I got in the classroom to real-world situations,” Toscano said. She’s a senior who graduates in June, and she had an interview with GM that weekend.
Christopher Reid, who now has a GM job at the proving grounds, said he first looked for work with an engineering bachelor’s degree, and couldn’t find anything interesting. EcoCar 2 propelled him back to school for a master’s degree and it led to his GM job, working with small four-cylinder engines. “It’s fantastic,” he said.
It's a tough competition: Mississippi State won the first year, and Penn State the second. EcoCar 2 is finishing up, and third-year winners will be announced June 13. EcoCar 3 starts in the fall, and the students will be deconstructing Camaros this time. They could be more of a challenge, considering the small trunk. But at least that V-8-capable engine bay is huge. Who knows what’s going to end up under there. I spent a few moments on video with Katherine Bovee of Ohio State's team, which was in the lead at the time:

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