GETTING THERE: EcoCar was one mad crush to get cars ready. (Credit: Jim Motavalli)
University of Waterloo: No car company has yet envisioned anything as outlandish as a fuel cell plug-in hybrid, but EcoCar has two teams with similar approaches (the other is the Missouri University of Science and Technology). How did Waterloo manage to pry a very valuable fuel cell out of General Motors? “We asked them very, very nicely,” said grad student and team leader Alexander Koch. The cell under Waterloo’s hood is the same one in GM’s Project Driveway Chevrolet Equinoxes (100 are on the road in test programs), but the GM versions don’t offer 30 to 60 miles of all-electric range, plus another 200 miles with the fuel cell pumping out electricity. But the Waterloo car was not yet ready to actually do that: During my visit, the car was half dismantled and a student was deep into its bowels, installing hydrogen lines for the fuel cell.
- Virginia Tech: A past winner of the Challenge X and Future Car versions of these contests, Virginia Tech is the team to beat. For EcoCar, it’s fielding an extended-range plug-in hybrid that can travel 35 to 40 miles on its batteries and twin electric motors alone, then the 2.4-liter engine running on E85 ethanol kicks in for hundreds of more miles. The Virginia Tech team seemed to have it fairly well together -- the car was not quite ready to roll, but faculty advisor Doug Nelson said it wasn’t facing any insurmountable obstacles, either.
- Embry Riddle Aeronautical University: These determined students from Daytona Beach are newcomers to the contest (an automotive engineering program is new), but already formidable competitors. Their car uses a tiny 1.3-liter diesel engine sourced from a European Opel Corsa. Like the Chevrolet Volt, the Embry Riddle car uses its internal-combustion engine as a generator. The car can travel 25 miles on its lithium-ion battery pack. According to team leader Vincent Sabatini, the team’s big challenge is not hardware but software -- getting the car’s controller to unite all its disparate parts. A Euro diesel (running on biofuels) was never designed to work with an American two-mode transmission. “The mechanics are peachy keen,” Sabatini said. “The computers are the issue.” But the team’s Ryle Maxson notes proudly that, after a year’s design work, the car works as designed. “It all fit in just like it was supposed to,” he said.
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