May 26, 2015
UW EcoCAR 3 team to compete on home turf
Sylvie Troxel didn’t own a driver’s license when she joined the University of Washington’s EcoCAR team as a freshman four years ago.
A lifelong bus rider, she knew virtually nothing about cars. She had never manufactured anything before she started working in the UW machine shop where students fabricate the components to turn an iconic muscle car into a high-performance electric hybrid.
“I joined the team with no skills and sort of no confidence in my engineering ability,” said Troxel, a senior in mechanical engineering who now leads a team of 40 people and is consumed with zero-to-60 acceleration times.
“I had no interest in manufacturing. I didn’t even know you could take a hunk of metal and really make anything you want. That’s been so fun, and it’s been really helpful. I’ve been able to replace pipe fittings at my parents’ house and repaired the garage door twice,” she said.
Troxel is the mechanical co-lead of the UW team that will compete on its home turf this week in the U.S. Department of Energy EcoCAR 3 Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition. The goal? To transform a donated Chevrolet Camaro into a fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicle without sacrificing any of the performance or creature comforts that make muscle car fanatics happy.
Seattle will host the Year 1 competition for EcoCAR 3 from May 29 to June 4, marking the competition’s first visit to the city. After presenting their final designs to a panel of judges, 16 teams from the U.S. and Canada will be scored on how well they justify their designs. The competing teams will receive a new Chevrolet Camaro from General Motors later this year.
At the end of the four-year competition, the reinvented Camaros will be judged on acceleration times and other performance measures such as braking distances, fuel efficiency, safety measures and reductions in greenhouse gas and tailpipe emissions.
Student teams have spent this initial year modeling every possible scenario and making choices that they’ll have to live with for the next three years: configuring the powertrains, running efficiency calculations, selecting fuels, designing the battery pack, writing code that controls and connects different systems, and playing the automotive equivalent of Tetris to fit entirely new components into the car.
The UW team placed 2nd overall in last year’s EcoCAR 2 competition with a biodiesel-fueled Chevrolet Malibu hybrid in which the internal combustion powertrain and the electric powertrain each powered a separate axle. Specifics on this year’s design are under wraps until the team presents them at this year’s competition, but when asked what’s different, Troxel says: “Interestingly enough, everything.”
EcoCAR 3 this year includes a new “innovation” category that requires each team to push the envelope with cutting-edge ideas and technologies.
Faculty advisor Brian Fabien, a mechanical engineering professor and associate dean of academic affairs in the UW College of Engineering, said the EcoCAR 3 competition enhances students’ educational experience by giving them access to highly sophisticated tools and techniques that are normally only available to industry employees.
With more than 90 team members from the UW’s mechanical, electrical, computer science, materials science and chemical engineering departments as well as the business and design schools, the team also offers fantastic leadership development opportunities, Fabien said. The students essentially manage the equivalent of a small business — they organize the team structures, develop reporting channels, seek sponsorships, handle external communications and eventually mentor their replacements.
“The students who participate in this program become very entrepreneurial,” Fabien said. “This is a student-led competition. They organize themselves, they do the work and we basically turn them loose.”
Erik Engstrom, a junior majoring in materials science and engineering and the team’s other mechanical co-lead, brought his interest in composites and alloys to the team in hopes of shaving the vehicle’s weight. Rebuilding a car nearly from scratch allows plenty of opportunity to apply engineering concepts to real-world challenges, he said.
“You study what torque is in the classroom and you might do a couple of physics problems on it, but looking at a car and seeing how the torque moves the parts of the engine and the wheels and the transmission really cements that knowledge,” Engstrom said.
While the minimum time commitment is 10 hours a week for new EcoCAR team members, it’s not uncommon for leads to spend 90 hours a week working out a problem. But to people like Ryan Mallory, a senior majoring in computer science and electrical engineering who is also this year’s innovation team lead, the investment is well worth it.
The experience led him to discover how interesting and cutting-edge aspects of computer science are inextricably entwined with the automotive world, and it helped him narrow down what he wants to focus on once he graduates.
“People think this competition is about designing new innovations in hybrid technology, and that’s true,” he said. “But the biggest thing is teaching the next generation of engineers. We come out of this knowing how the automotive design process works, which could easily take years to learn on the job. The people who come out of this can really pick the future they want to have.”