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Virginia Tech students’ re-engineered car wins international competition

The 2009 General Motors crossover SUV that 66 Virginia Tech College of Engineering students spent three years re-engineering into a hybrid electric vehicle boasts the equivalent of 82 miles per gallon and won them first place in the international EcoCAR Challenge. It will never go to the assembly line. Nor will it be sold.

Such marketing ideas were never part of the competition, co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors. The Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT) of Virginia Tech’s initial mission was to rebuild a standard vehicle to be more efficient, cutting petroleum energy use while maintaining consumer acceptability, stock appearance, and safety. Along the way team members gained in-the-field training, connecting with professional engineers and opening doors to new careers.

   

Virginia Tech’s EcoCAR, named VT-REX for Virginia Tech Range Extended Crossover, lets loose at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road. That’s Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger behind the wheel. Virginia Tech’s EcoCAR, named VT-REX for Virginia Tech Range Extended Crossover, lets loose at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road. That’s Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger behind the wheel.

“I, along with five other students from the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team, are going to go work for General Motors,” said Lynn Gantt, student team leader who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in spring 2011. “Several other students have secured jobs in the automotive industry for suppliers, and more than 90 percent of the graduating students on my team found jobs because of their exposure to industry-leading software and hardware tools.”

Concluding at General Motor’s Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan and then the U.S. Department of Energy’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., the competition included last-minute fixes and some glitches for Virginia Tech’s team. During the 100-Mile Emissions and Energy Consumption Event, the car, named VT-REX for Virginia Tech Range Extended Crossover, broke down. A DC/DC converter went bust. Team members scrambled for a full day to correct the problem, enlisting the help of General Motors employees and members of the Mississippi State University EcoCAR team.

“This was a situation where our backs were up against the wall with a competition-threatening problem, but we kept on working through it and found a solution and got back up and running in time to finish all of the events,” said Jesse Alley, a mechanical engineering master’s student from Kingsport, Tenn., and team leader for the new EcoCAR 2 Challenge team. “I’ve learned that you can never give up, even in the face of hopeless odds. You have to keep working. If you don’t you are guaranteed not to find a solution.”

   

A peek inside the engine of Virginia Tech’s EcoCAR. The cover on the driver’s side is for aesthetic purposes. A peek inside the engine of Virginia Tech’s EcoCAR. The cover on the driver’s side is for aesthetic purposes.

In March, just three months before the EcoCAR finale, the car’s small electric motor blew. The students connected with Kollmorgen in nearby Radford, Va., and the shop built a custom motor in the month leading up to competition. “We ended up with enough time to refine the vehicle and take into account drivability, such as handling, noise, and consumer acceptable features, such as pedestrian alert system, touch screen driver display with power flow animations, a back-up camera with an integrated 3.5-inch display in the rear view mirror, and vehicle efficiency,” Gantt said.

Of the 16 teams in competition, only six finished all of the dynamic events. On June 16, Virginia Tech won 10 first-place awards, plus several individual awards and runner-up commendations. REX was cited by a Department of Energy blogger for demonstrating “a braking distance of 132.74 feet -- beating the stock vehicle.” HEVT member Patrick Walsh then bested General Motors’ own drivers with a quicker run time during an autocross test event.

“The team did a great job of getting things done in time to be able to do testing, and in particular, refinement of our vehicle for efficiency, driveability, and reliability,” said Doug Nelson, faculty adviser of the HEVT for 17 years and a professor of mechanical engineering.

Katerina Pecinovsky, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering in spring 2011, said she used what she learned in class during EcoCAR. “I learned about drive cycles in Dr. Nelson’s Advanced Technology Vehicles class, but I was actually able to ride along on one during competition,” she said. 

   

Members of the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team take the stage at the EcoCAR Challenge finale event at the Thomas Jefferson Building, home of the Library of Congress, with event sponsors Members of the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team take the stage at the EcoCAR Challenge finale event at the Thomas Jefferson Building, home of the Library of Congress, with event sponsors. Photo by Roy Feldman.

Added Brad Bowman, who earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in spring 2011 and now works for General Motors: “This project has taught me how to take what I've learned in classes and apply it to a real project while working with fellow engineers to make something work that has never been made before.”

“It was an intense 2.5 years for me, but in the end I am a far better engineer because of the experience that EcoCAR and HEVT provided me,” said Walsh, who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in spring 2011 and is now a research engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, an EcoCAR organizer, in Chicago.

For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at (540) 231-4787.

By the numbers

A look at the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team at EcoCAR:

  • 16,500: Prize money in dollars won in year three
  • 4,715: Vehicle weight in pounds
  • 89: Top vehicle speed in miles per hour
  • 82: Estimated miles per gallon
  • 66: Total team members during three years
  • 50: Vehicle mile range in electric-only mode
  • 6.68: Seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph
  • 5.5: Hours to charge vehicle batteries on 240-VAC wall outlet

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Go online to stay connected to the College of Engineering's Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team. 

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