A modified GM SUV isn’t a time traveling Delorean by any standard, but the University of Victoria Engineering Departments’ efforts to convert an SUV into a plug-in hybrid electric car, could be the tipping point, pushing North America society Back to the Future. EcoCAR is a friendly, engineering competition happening on 16 different university campuses around Canada and the United States. This contest has been running in three-year cycles since 1991 and the most recent incarnation started in 2008 and draws to a conclusion this year. In 2011 a brand new competition will replace the existing one.
So on Friday September 17th To Tread Lightly (TTL), your resident granola-crunching hippy got the scoop on what the EcoCar is and does from Jeff Waldner, Team Leader for the UVic entry into this car competition. As a first year graduate student in mechanical engineering, Jeff got involved with the project two years ago, at the end of the year-one competition by meeting and getting to know the then EcoCar Team Leader. This first year of the competition according to Jeff, was all about doing: “a lot of research and modeling in order to determine what kind of components that we wanted to have within our vehicle.” These components are pretty substantial and integral to the overall functionality of the EcoCar. Major financial support for the UVic entry came from BC Hydro as well as both the provincial and federal governments. Other major North American EcoCar Challenge sponsors include: the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California Air Resources Board, the US Department of Energy and obviously General Motors. Siemens and MathWorks, two of the heavy hitters within the modern engineering industry, donated the technical equipment that has been included in the UVic EcoCar.
To give you a general idea, about overall project costs at stake in UVic’s EcoCar entry, the car batteries alone are worth $70,000. These batteries, which are necessary to power the car’s engine, according to Jeff are worth more than the total budget of a normal research project at UVic. For the companies that donate their high tech components to university engineering departments, such as UVic’s to tinker with, benefit from this transaction. Up and coming engineering students get to learn on cutting edge new technology meanwhile these high tech companies receive product testing in return, prior to taking their inventions to market.
Now in year three of the competition, after figuring out which components were a best fit for the SUV, the duration of the last school year was spent: “ putting it together and making it run, which it does right now” according to Jeff. So at present the focus has turned too conducting road tests to ensure that the vehicle runs safely and smoothly. THE other intent of the road tests is to ensure, that the car is also getting great fuel economy, which it is: “our car will uses zero fuel for 65 kilometers and thereafter it will use 9 liters of gas per 100 kilometres,” Jeff says.
When it comes to monitoring fuel economy and internal performance standards of the car, Jeff and his teammates patch their laptops into an on board control system, which immediately gives them access to the EcoCar’s network of 25 integrated on board computers. Connecting into the car’s operating system, allows Jeff and his teammates to alter: “stuff on the fly,” such as: “how the gas pedal feels like, how much power you get, we can also change the power steering almost everything in the car is computer controlled.”
Jeff Waldner’s overwhelming passion for the EcoCar Challenge Project, makes it difficult to understand why electric technology is only becoming fashionable and widely adopted now, when electric cars have been around in various forms for decades. He cites the documentary movie Who Killed the Electric Car: “the vehicle [featured in the film] had a lead acid battery and they can’t even come close, when compared with today’s technology, they were a lot heavier and there usability decreases, the more you use them”. With successive improvements to battery technology, this problem is now accounted and compensated for by: “automotive manufacturers [who] are really careful about determining how much battery capacity you are allowed to use,” according to Jeff. So if Jeff was a betting man, which I discover he isn’t, I ask him where he would invest his money: “ I definitely think hybrids and plug-in hybrids will be the next step in the progression of vehicles. I don’t want anyone too take my word for it and blow all their money on the stock market.” Not that they would, Jeff’s work is a pretty solid indicator that the future of driving is going to be a lot greener. To find out more information about UVic’s participation in the EcoCar Challenge visit them on the web and if you are able make a donation to the program.