YUMA, ARIZONA -- I have been attending college green car and truck competitions for more than 15 years, and the chaos is so specific you’d think it was choreographed. In a series of contests sponsored by auto companies and the federal government, university-based engineering teams -- all charged with the daunting task of turning standard vehicles into environmentally friendly paragons -- descend on some remote proving grounds.

Do they come with their cars fully formed, ready for testing by judges from the auto industry and federal agencies? Not at all. Invariably, the cars arrive with long “to do” lists, and the grad students and their frantic faculty advisers spend days with their decal-festooned cars in pieces, working in a welter of tools, abandoned hoses and spare bolts, fast food and laptop computers spewing analytical data. And that’s just what I found when I covered the second year of the three-year EcoCar Challenge. Here's the video view from the garage floor in Arizona, featuring a competitor from the Missouri University of Science and Technology:

Last year was all planning, working not with wrenches but with computers, designing plug-in hybrids, battery electrics and even fuel-cell cars, all as variations of the small Saturn Vue SUV. It’s kind of ironic that students built the cars of the future from a defunct marquee, isn’t it? The students took delivery of the cars in January, and since then it’s been a mad scramble to turn dreams into reality. Here are some snapshots from the shop floor, a vast garage that is part of the General Motors Proving Grounds in one of America’s hottest places (it’s not hell, we were told, but you can see it from there):

  • 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.
This year's competition ends in San Diego next week, and an interim winner will be announced. But there's another year to go in the competition, with consumer acceptance trials to come, and there are no safe bets as to who will get the gold.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.