UA students transform a classic American car into an environmentally friendly vehicle as part of a national contest.

By:    Date: 02-26-2017

Article by Lane Stafford and Katie Bedrich  |  Photos by Ellen Johnson and Brandon Bennett and courtesy the EcoCar team

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While many college students dream of developing new technologies or using existing ones to make the planet cleaner for future generations, a team of students at The University of Alabama is already delving into the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish that.

In Spring 2014, The University of Alabama was selected as one of 16 universities to compete in EcoCAR 3: An Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition. The four-year, national competition is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors and managed by Argonne National Laboratory. EcoCAR 3 challenges students to transform a Chevrolet Camaro into a vehicle that uses significantly less energy and emits less pollution without sacrificing performance, safety or consumer appeal.

The UA team consists of five advisors and more than 150 students from eight disciplines.

From May 29-June 4, 2015, teams gathered for the EcoCAR 3 Year One in Seattle, WA to compete in technical, communications, and project management events. Throughout the week, students will share their efforts over this last year with industry experts and judges to highlight the viability of their advanced technology vehicle designs.

Members of the UA EcoCAR team in Seattle, where the year-one competition was held. [foreground: UA student Kaylie Crosby with General Motors staff] ABOVE: UA students Travis Foust [left] and Marshall Williams hoist a new engine into the car.

Many students earn academic credit for their work on the EcoCAR project through service-learning courses including: Engineering Leadership 491/591, ME 491 Modeling and Simulation of Automotive Systems, ME 591 Advanced IC Engines, APR 433 Public Relations Campaigns, MC 495 Experiential Learning, GBA 171 Organizational Behavior, GBA 172 Marketing, GBA 271 Accounting, GBA 272 Finance and many more. The team also collaborates with the Capstone Agency, a student-run, integrated communications firm, and marketing students taking a sales course, MKT 439 Key Account Management, raise funds for the team by reaching out to potential donors. More than a third of EcoCAR’s project-management team members are part of UA’s STEM Path to the MBA program, in which students who major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics earn an undergraduate STEM degree as well as an MBA in business in one additional year.

Having so many young minds focus on creating a better car for the planet will produce change in the automotive industry, says Michael Pope, an EcoCAR faculty advisor and instructor of GBA 171, 172, 271 and 272. “Ultimately, the student technologies will be considered for implementation into a GM production vehicle,” Pope says. “Society benefits not only from the green technology being introduced into the transportation domain, but in the development of a new generation of innovators.”

Kimberly DeClark, who works for Argonne National Laboratory as the communications and logistics manager of the competition, says the nonprofit research laboratory and the Energy Department are extremely interested in students’ ideas and applications. “It provides us with a fresh perspective and new thinking that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”

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Student Marshall Williams works on the electrical system inside the car.

Each team’s efforts are evaluated annually during a weeklong series of presentations. In the year-one competition, held in June 2015, UA was named the “Team to Watch.” The team placed first for its media-relations report, Clean Cities Coalition Outreach Initiative (which involves collaborating with the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition) and an outreach presentation and event related to its EcoScholars youth program. The team’s mechanical-engineering presentation placed third. UA’s project manager, Kaylie Crosby, a graduate student in the MBA program, won the Excellence in Leadership Award for her management skills working with the large student team.

“The UA Team’s vision is to be a leading stimulus in the development of advanced-propulsion and alternative-fuel technologies amongst North American academic institutions,” Pope says.

How the UA car works
After spending nearly 18 months working on plans, students received a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro after the Fall 2015 semester and began implementing their designs.

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UA student Forrest Fletcher designs a part for the car.

The team is turning the gasoline-powered Camaro into a blended plug-in hybrid with a smaller internal combustion engine supplemented by two electric motors. With these changes, the Camaro should be able to travel 48 miles on the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline compared to its standard 28 mpg, says Travis Foust, the team’s engineering project manager who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UA in 2014 and is now pursuing a graduate degree in the same discipline.

Foust says the EcoCAR project implements knowledge students from all seven of UA’s engineering departments learn in the classroom. “This is an elite group of students that work ridiculous hours in order to put our team in the best position for success,” he says. “I have no doubt that I have the privilege of working with the most capable group of engineering students on campus.”

Students are replacing the 3.6-liter, six-cylinder internal combustion engine that came with the Camaro with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder unit, but the two electric motors should make up for the smaller engine with their capability of providing 32 and 106 additional kilowatts, respectively.

As a blended plug-in hybrid, the Camaro will be able to optimally select among three power sources depending on the needs of the car. When the driver wants the full force of a muscle car, both electric motors will work in parallel with the engine. The vehicle also can drive by electric power alone or run off one electric motor while the other works in series with the engine to charge the battery.

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Team members [l-r] Marshall Williams, Travis Foust, Forrest Fletcher, Jacob Horton and Josh Penn

An algorithm programmed into a supervisory controller the students designed will determine how the engines and motors work in concert to power the car and charge the battery, Foust says.

To fully charge the redesigned Camaro’s battery, drivers would need to plug the hybrid vehicle into an electrical outlet before departing on a trip. However, they could always drive the vehicle so long as fuel was in the gas tank.

Evan Graves, electrical leader for the team and an electrical-engineering graduate student, says he and the other project leaders typically work at least 30 hours a week on the EcoCAR project in addition to managing other classes and assignments. He and his team designed the entire electrical-propulsion system for the vehicle as well as the low-voltage and control systems’ wiring layouts.

“Being able to take the theories we learn in class and apply them to designing and building a vehicle is probably the best work experience available to us outside of internships and co-ops,” Graves says.

Dr. Hwan-Sik Yoon, an EcoCAR faculty advisor and assistant professor of mechanical engineering who teaches ME 491 Modeling and Simulation of Automotive Systems, says the EcoCAR lab offers some of the best facilities and equipment of any university in the nation.

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Kids in the EcoScholars program practice their problem-solving skills and creativity through an engineering activity called ‘Crimson Cup Stacking Challenge.’

Yoon was one of the faculty members who initiated EcoCAR 3 at UA. When Dr. Paul Puzinauskas, associate professor with UA’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies and lead advisor for the project, told Yoon about the call for proposals for EcoCAR 3, they decided to form a student team and apply. Two vigorous proposals later, Yoon says, the team learned UA was accepted into the competition.

Reaching out to kids
The competition’s sponsors say it engages the next generation of automotive professionals, and at UA, students are using it as a platform to reach out to an even younger demographic.

Brittany Galloway, the team’s communications manager and an advertising and public relations graduate student, started the EcoScholars program, through which EcoCAR students lead sessions two Saturdays a month for middle and high schoolers in west Tuscaloosa, teaching them about STEM, leadership and career discovery. So far, more than 75 kids and 10 UA students have taken part in the program.

“Tuscaloosa has a lot of disadvantaged schools, and a lot of students have potential they don’t get to tap into,” Galloway says. “Having this opportunity to help out students is amazing.”

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UA law student Jason Malone, a member of the EcoCar Youth Outreach Team, helps kids at University Place Middle School with an analytical activity during an EcoScholars event.

As part of the EcoScholars program, students visited University Place Middle School on Earth Day, April 22, 2016, and spent three hours leading activities with 30 kids.

Teamwork and Careers
Yoon says EcoCAR students encourage each other and create a remarkable working environment. The skills they’re learning are paving the way to a variety of careers.

“I decided to join the UA EcoCAR 3 Team because I knew it would provide me with an incredible opportunity to grow as a leader while working with an interdisciplinary team of talented students,” says Crosby, who won the year-one leadership award. “As extensive as the project is, we equate it to running a small business. The opportunities I’ve had engaging with students and faculty will translate to any career path I may pursue.”

Graves and Foust, along with five other members of the team, have secured jobs with General Motors through the EcoCAR competition. “The project has opened up a lot of opportunities for a lot of our team,” Graves says. “Being a part of a vehicle-design team and being exposed to a lot of the activities that happen when designing a car will go a long way in helping advance my career.”

DeClark with Argonne National Laboratory says the project sets up students to positively influence the automotive world.

“The most significant benefit we see out of the program is the chance for today’s engineering students to gain invaluable experience using the latest engineering tools in the development of incredibly complex advanced vehicle technologies – experience they will need to help make an impact in the automotive industry after they graduate,” she says.

Teri Henley, who teaches Capstone Agency students involved in the EcoCAR 3 project in APR 433 Public Relations Campaigns and MC 495 Experiential Learning, says EcoCAR is a tremendous learning experience for all the students involved.

“Anytime students work on something real-world, it is no longer just theory,” Henley says. “It becomes practical problem solving. If they can solve these kinds of challenges while they are in college, it opens a door for great opportunities in their careers.”

The EcoCAR team is recruiting new members to replace those who have graduated. For information about applying, contact Dr. Hwan-Sik Yoon at hyoon@eng.ua.edu or 205-348-1136. The team’s other advisors are: Dr. Tim Haskew, head of the department of electrical and computer engineering; Dr. Rob Morgan, executive director for Innovation Initiatives in the Culverhouse College of Commerce; Michael Pope, instructor of marketing in the STEM Path to MBA program; and Dr. Paul Puzinauskas, associate professor of mechanical engineering.