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Students win FutureCar Challenge

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 36 - July 25, 1996

A team of Virginia Tech engineering students drove away with $16,500 in prize money and an impressive list of titles during the recent national FutureCar Challenge in Detroit, including first place, most energy-efficient vehicle, lowest emissions, best overall dynamic performance, best use of alternative fuels and best workmanship.

Matt Merkle, a graduate student in electrical engineering and co-leader of the Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) Team, said that engine problems on the eve of the competition and an encounter with a car-eating pothole during the event left the Tech students hoping for second place.

But the team of more than 40 students, predominantly undergraduates led by Merkle and graduate student Randy Senger of mechanical engineering, overcame the obstacles and won over competition from 11 other top engineering schools in the United States.

The FutureCar Challenge, aimed at encouraging engineering students to help design the next generation of automobiles, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, a joint research venture of Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., and General Motors (GM) Corp. In 1993, this group formed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) to develop fuel efficient cars for mass production.

The goal set by the sponsors for the FutureCar Challenge is to turn a family-sized sedan into a high-fuel economy, low-emissions vehicle with all the conventional features, such as air conditioning and heating, said Doug Nelson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the team's faculty advisor.

In October 1995, the PNGV sponsors sent the Tech team a standard Chevrolet Lumina and $10,000. The students removed the Lumina's engine, transmission, and gas tank, and installed an electric drive motor donated by the General Electric Corp. The redesigned car also has a battery pack and an auxiliary power unit (APU) under the hood. The APU is a three-cylinder Geo Metro engine, altered by the students to run on propane, and is used to generate electricity to recharge the batteries.

The students rounded up other sponsors, many of them local, for donations of money and parts. The contributors include General Electric Drive Systems, Virginia Power, American Electric Power, Kleenair Systems Inc., Lord Corp., Pressure Systems Inc., Sleegers Engineering Inc., GM Proving Ground, AlliedSignal Corp., Ferebee Johnson Hose & Fitting, North Main Auto, and Corning Glass Inc.

The prize-winning HEV Lumina can go 600 miles without refueling, a range more than twice the minimum goal set by the competition's sponsors. Merkle said the car can reach a top speed of 75 and gets 40-50 miles per gallon from its propane-fueled generator engine.

One of the most noticeable features, however, is the way the electric-powered vehicle takes off. "It can do 0-60 miles per hour in less than 12 seconds, thanks to the General Electric drive-train system and the fact that an electric motor reaches peak torque as soon as it starts," Merkle explained.

Merkle said the FutureCar vehicles were tested during the challenge by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which tests all production models for emissions and other standards, and by Argonne National Labs, a division of the DOE.

The data collected by the DOE and the automakers from these tests, as well as from regular technical reports submitted by the 12 FutureCar teams, are valuable to the sponsors' goal of developing prototypes of marketable HEV's.

Ron York, PNGV director for GM, said the FutureCar Challenge is more than just a student competition. "The Europeans have formed a similar program and the Japanese are also working in related auto-technology areas," York said. "We can't afford to lose the jobs and the trade benefits that come from playing a leading role in future automotive development."

Chrysler's PNGV director, Peter Rosenfeld, cited the development of new fuel-efficiency techniques as an important result of the students' FutureCar work. At some point, Rosenfeld noted, the public will demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, "and all of us need to be ready."

The competition in Detroit ended the first round of the two-year FutureCar Challenge. During the coming year, the Tech HEV Team will attempt to decrease the Lumina's weight and to increase its power by 50 percent and its luggage space by 150 percent. The students also will work on the performance of the heating and air-conditioning systems and will try to improve the engine's tuning and emissions. The sponsors will make their final evaluations in June 1997.

As for the long-term value to the students, Merkle--who wants to work for one of the Big Three--said the experience is "the best thing you could have on a resume."