Students compete in the EcoCar 2 competition in 2013. (Photo by Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions via Creative Commons)
Students compete in the EcoCar 2 competition in 2013. (Photo by Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions via Creative Commons)
Students compete in the EcoCar 2 competition in 2013. (Photo by Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions via Creative Commons)

Working on energy-efficient cars at the college level can be a route to a career in the Michigan auto industry. That’s what generations of students participating in the United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions have discovered over the past 26 years.

The trend continues with the EcoCAR 3 competition — an automotive engineering challenge in which 16 teams will engage in a four-year race to design the most eco-friendly and cost-efficient Chevrolet Camaro they can build.

EcoCAR 3 will give students hands-on experience integrating energy storage systems, simulating and testing hardware and software, developing interactive interfaces for displays, creating control systems, testing powertrain components, and improving aerodynamics.

“It’s all about really building smart vehicles. Over the last 20 years, our vehicles have come to be dominated by having many microprocessors,” said Jack Little, president of MathWorks, a company that cosponsors the competition. “It’s greatly expanded the possibility of how cars can be designed and what cars are capable of doing.”

GM, dSPACE, MathWorks. A123 Systems, and many other companies in the Michigan auto industry will help the students reach these ambitious goals, providing them with tools and mentors.

Experts at GM will rate the finished cars based on their energy efficiency, emissions, performance, safety, cost, and consumer acceptability.

“This competition’s going to be unique because we’re incorporating a cost factor as well as an innovation factor,” said Kimberly DeClark, advanced vehicle technology competitions communications and logistics manager at Argonne National Laboratory. “We’ve never really factored cost into these competitions.”

The universities follow a lengthened version of GM’s Global Vehicle Development Program to produce the cars. Year one of the competition will consist of modeling and simulating with software and hardware from MathWorks and dSPACE, DeClark said.

“In June 2015, they’ll receive the key to the Camaro,” DeClark said. The teams will spend the second and third years of the contest reconstructing the cars and testing them at GM’s proving ground.

“When you take into account the fact that the students have full work schedules,” DeClark said, it’s remarkable that they make time to work on energy-efficient cars. “They’re passionate about the environment and they’re passionate about the auto industry.”

Recruiting students

Around 75 percent of the program’s students accept jobs in the auto industry when they graduate, according to DeClark.

“A lot of the students are moving to Michigan,” DeClark said. “Our sponsors use this as a recruiting tool. I’m a native Michigander and I like to see that.”

The competition sponsors integrate their recruiting process with mentoring and training the students. EcoCAR participants traveled to Novi, Michigan, for the program kickoff this year, where they participated in a software training offered by MathWorks and met some of the program sponsors.

“The program has really placed a lot of people into jobs in the automotive industry,” said Paul Smith, director for worldwide consulting services at MathWorks. “The program’s purpose is to build the next generation of automotive engineers.”

The program kickoff also included opportunities for students to attend two conferences: The Battery Show and the Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo. “Almost all of our sponsors were exhibiting there,” DeClark said. “It was really neat for our students to see the significance of the battery industry.”

Networking events are part of the program as well.

“The students bring their resumes and often job opportunities are given onsite,” DeClark said. “GM interviews students and will literally provide them with a job offer then and there.”

Mentoring by engineers

Intensive mentoring is also part of the competition. Shawn Midlam-Mohler, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University, says his team has their mentor from MathWorks “on speed dial.”

“Each team will have a very seasoned auto industry engineer who works for MathWorks now,” Smith said. “They can talk about hybrid controls or battery management systems for engine controls.”

GM also assigns a dedicated mentor to each team, Midlam-Mohler said. “It’s built into that person’s job duties to help the team succeed. Each of the mentors has a travel allowance to come and see the schools each year.”

“Their engineers are in the field working on similar issues to what our students are facing,” Midlam-Mohler said. “If they don’t know the answer, they know someone who does.”

Mentors provide both advice and criticism to the students. For example, A123 Systems ensures that the car batteries will be safe to operate at high voltages. This requires a detailed design review.

“A123 is instrumental in providing the battery systems that make these cars green,” Midlam-Mohler said. “That’s where we derive the electric range. They go through the design process with our students. You don’t build your pack until A123 is happy with your design. They critique as well as advise the students.”

dSPACE hosts simulation hardware training for EcoCAR students and allows them access to professional-level courses. “They have a dedicated person whose job it is to answer questions from EcoCAR,” Midlam-Mohler said. “They do a very good job of making sure the students get what they need.”

“Students are using tools that they might not even get exposed to in the undergrad curriculum and sometimes even in the master’s curriculum,” Midlam-Mohler said.

In videos and other interviews, students have said they appreciate this opportunity.

“I really think my interaction with MathWorks will benefit me as a student,” said Ben Johnke, a student from Colorado State University, in a video about the program. “It really helps me to get perspective on how people actually do controller development in the real world.”

Greening curricula

These environmentally-driven auto competitions have also shaped university curricula. This means that new graduates of these universities will now be better-prepared to design vehicles with alternative fuels if they go to work in the automotive industry.

“As the vehicle developments are changing and the electrification of the vehicles is changing, a lot of the schools are needing to change their curricula to manage that,” DeClark said. “We’ve had a number of schools that have literally added other courses on. We’re pretty proud that this is driving the new curricula in some of the schools.”

“The common criticism of professors is that they don’t have an applied understanding of things, kind of a head-in-the-clouds mentality,” Midlam-Mohler said in a YouTube video. “Admittedly, I’m still not much of a gearhead, but I really grew a passion for the technologies under the hood.”

Midlam-Mohler said he chose to pursue his Ph.D. because of his participation in these competitions.

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