Consider this challenge for our bright young college minds: They have to redesign the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro to make it the ultimate green vehicle but, oh yeah, they can’t actually have the car until after the first year of the three-year Department of Energy/industry EcoCAR 3 program.
Modern car design is all on computers, so the initial work was done with just some basic specs and layout details of the new Camaro, which was revealed to the public only in May. The actual Camaros (brand-new and some of the first off the line) will be delivered to the teams late this year.
The fact that engineering students at 16 colleges (survivors of the initial cut) can and do make the design phase work is why, when they graduate, they’re in such demand from the Big Three and beyond. Virtually all of the students who complete the program get job offers from car companies or their many suppliers. Consider the case of Jesse Alley, now a vehicle systems engineer at the Argonne National Laboratories. Just a few years ago he was a student at Virginia Tech, spending all his free time building green vehicles (a Saturn Vue, then a Chevy Malibu) as part of the first two EcoCARs.
“There’s no way I’d be working here at Argonne if it wasn’t for EcoCAR,” Alley said. “It funnels the best and brightest into the auto industry.” The irony is that, before he got sucked into the program, Alley had not even the vaguest concept of becoming a car engineer.
“I remember standing in a garage at Virginia Tech and holding up an alternator and an air-conditioning compressor, and having no idea which was which,” he said. “I had no interest in the auto industry at all.” No matter, he was soon spending his nights in the garage, fueled on Jolt cola and takeout pizza.
The first year of EcoCAR is now history, and Ohio State has taken the initial honors for its variation on the Camaro power plant. OSU, a big supporter of EcoCAR, was also the overall winner last year. Under the Camaro’s (so far, virtual) hood, says M.J. Yatsko, the OSU team’s engineering manager, is a “post-transmission hybrid” with a two-liter engine (the origin is top secret) running E85 ethanol as fuel. Cars will be hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery cars; there are no diesels or hydrogen fuel-cell cars in this round of competition.
“We’re very excited about it,” Yatsko said. “We’re really stepping up our game this year with a 40-person, mostly volunteer team, and we wanted to make sure the students—from freshmen to graduate students—understand the importance of the design stage.”
Yatsko, a first-year graduate student in mechanical engineering, is one of a growing number of women who have found a home at EcoCAR, and a likely future designing cars. “My goal is to work in hybrid development at a major auto company,” she said. Unlike some of her colleagues, she says she grew up around cars and has always wanted to do something related to them. Will she get a job offer? Oh yeah, don’t worry about her.
Ohio State won $10,000 and bragging rights at the first-year conclave in Seattle, but that isn’t really the point. Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing,” and anybody can win this thing—the next two years, after the cars are actually delivered, are all about getting grease under fingernails and learning by doing. All-nighters aren’t the exception; they’re the rule.
And it’s not just drivetrains; EcoCAR teams get 10 percent of their points for innovation, and that can mean designing cool infotainment systems, or as Alley explains, screen-based eco-routing and eco-driving apps. “We have one team that’s planning to tap into a server in the cloud to reduce the amount of computing powered needed in the vehicle, and spit out the most efficient possible route,” he said. Other apps use gestures instead of touch to minimize driver distraction.
Salesmanship comes into it, too, because the first-year competition included setting up trade show booths to tout the virtues of the schools’ designs. Part of Alley’s job is mentoring the student teams, and because he’s been exactly where they are—with systems that don’t work at 3 a.m.—he’s perfect for the role.
Here's some video on how EcoCAR 3 works: