Dropping Wrenches at EcoCAR as the Auto Industry Courts Student Engineers

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 16, 2013

I have a major crush on the EcoCAR competitions. It restores your faith in humanity to see young college engineers, men and women, dressed like slackers but acting like anything but—in effect, working their tails off, pulling all-nighters to build the green cars of tomorrow. No wonder companies like General Motors hire graduates en masse.

A typically frenetic scene as EcoCAR teams build their vehicles. You're missing the shouts of triumph and despair. (EcoCAR photo)The typical scene is this: 3 a.m., rock music mixes with the clang of dropped wrenches. The glow of many laptop screens illuminates the night. Legs in cargo shorts stick out from under half the cars. In stereo are cries of triumph and despair as cars either work the way they’re supposed to, or they don’t.

EcoCAR is sponsored by the Department of Energy and automakers, currently GM. Right now we’re in the second year of the three-year EcoCAR2. There are 15 college teams, two of them from Canada, working to turn identical 2013 Chevy Malibu eAssist cars into plug-in hybrids. According to Brian Benoy, lead technical coordinator for EcoCAR2, some teams are far enough along to claim the equivalent of 100 mpg. Here's Colorado State on video, getting psyched up about winning this thing:

This is the 25th year of the student car and truck competitions, and 16,000 people have been through the mill. One of them is Benoy himself, who was a graduate student at the University of Mississippi for the first EcoCar. The Mississippi team, Benoy said, built “a range-extender electric vehicle, similar in architecture to the Chevy Volt.” Benoy was responsible for the electronic controls on that car, and they worked very well. Consider that a rolling resume, because Benoy was promptly hired by the Argonne National Laboratories, which manages EcoCAR, and now does the same work for the entire competition.

As I wrote in 2010, GM hired no less than 55 graduates of an earlier event, Challenge X, and 16 from early waves of the first EcoCAR. GM’s Micky Bly, an electrification executive, told me, “Mississippi State, for instance, was never on our radar screen until we had them here for Challenge X.”

The student teams are now working on their cars in the blazing heat of Yuma, Arizona, where GM maintains hot-weather proving grounds. If the cars can make it there, mere miles from Mexico, with Border Patrol surveillance balloons overhead, they can make it anywhere. Kristen De La Rosa, director of EcoCAR2, told me, “They’re trying to make it work with the weather and the elements—it’s very, very warm here this week. What they’re doing on the ground can’t be learned from a textbook.” After Yuma is a trip to San Diego, where the winner of this year's stage will be announced on May 23.

Young engineers make mistakes, fix them, and mentor each other as they build their cars. (EcoCAR photo)Wiping the sweat from her brow is Amanda Hyde, a 24-year-old engineering graduate student at Ohio State, which is ahead on points as I write this (but it’s still anybody’s competition). “It’s awesome we’re in the points lead, but there’s still a long road to the finish line,” she said. “We’ve spent the year building our vehicle and we’re excited to see it run through the same hot-weather testing that GM uses for its cars and trucks.”

Amanda Hyde of Ohio State knows what she'll be doing after graduation. (EcoCAR photo)Unlike many soon-to-graduate students, Hyde knows exactly where her life is going. “This competition has prepared me for my career while I’m still in school,” she said. “I’m much more valuable to my future employer because I’ve been there. I can say that I’ve already built a car, because of the hands-on experience of EcoCAR2.”

Last-minute tweaks are all part of on-the-job testing. (EcoCAR photo)Students who’ve been through the trial by fire are sought-after, De La Rosa said. “It’s seen as the training ground for the next generation of automotive engineers. The automakers are very motivated, and it’s an assertive recruiting effort.” Those job offers make all the long days and nights worthwhile, but the satisfaction of getting your crazy car running is its own reward.

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