UW News

September 30, 2014

UW students to build hybrid-electric muscle car in EcoCAR 3 contest

UW News

Classes have barely started, yet one group of University of Washington students is already in the lab. These students have a job to do and, with only seven months before the first phase of competition, there’s no time to waste.

They are the Advanced Vehicle Works team, otherwise known as UW EcoCAR. Their challenge in this next four-year competition, called EcoCAR 3, is to convert a Chevrolet Camaro into a hybrid-electric car. The UW is one of 16 schools invited to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors Co. competition that spans four years with stand-alone contests each spring. Year one kicked off with a workshop in Michigan in mid-September.

The UW team runs on undergraduate talent and hard work, with about 60 students prepared to put in thousands of hours collectively to engineer and design a hybrid Camaro, while keeping the car’s iconic flair as a high-performance “muscle car.”

Visit UW EcoCAR’s Facebook page for more photos.

“It’s an incredible thing we have to do in terms of performance to meet the targets of the competition, and there’s no such vehicle out there” said Brian Fabien, the team’s faculty adviser and a UW professor of mechanical engineering. “This is what makes it an educational and engineering challenge for us. I’m confident we’ll be able to do it.”

The UW doesn’t have an auto engineering program or a multimillion-dollar auto research facility, as some of its competitors do. But what enabled the team to do well in the last EcoCAR competition – placing second overall and first in lowest energy consumption for its hybrid Chevrolet Malibu – is strong work ethic and rigorous academic preparation.

“Most of us aren’t gearheads and haven’t turned wrenches before,” said Brian Magnuson, the team’s engineering lead and a senior in electrical engineering. “We do well in competition because we have the work ethic, good teamwork and instruction from our departments. We’re a fine engineering school and it really shows in this competition.”

It also helps that students get along, both in and out of the lab.

“We’re a bunch of great friends who enjoy what we do together. That makes it really easy to come in and spend the time necessary to get the work done,” Magnuson said.

EcoCAR students at the Washington State Fair.

UW EcoCAR members talk with people at the Washington State Fair in September. The students showed off their completed Chevrolet Malibu and took surveys about what Washington residents valued in a hybrid Camaro.Kate Kitto, U of Wash.

The team is expected to build a hybrid car, seek funding and sponsorships, do community outreach at schools and events and maintain a dynamic website and social media streams. The endeavor operates like a small business, with the flavor of a startup.

Still, the primary purpose is to learn and gain actual work experience. The project is mostly run by undergraduate, full-time students and is truly interdisciplinary. Many come from the UW’s engineering departments, but also from communications, business and design departments and schools.

“You help a lot and you learn a lot along the way. That’s the whole point of the program,” said Ajay Gowda, a UW graduate student in mechanical engineering who’s one of four graduate students working with the team.

Students are expected to put in at least five to 10 hours a week. Most average 30 hours a week, on top of their full undergraduate course load, and that ramps up to 50 or 60 hours when a deadline is approaching. For that reason, it’s not for everyone, and students must fill out an application with a résumé, cover letter and transcript, and come in for an interview.

During this first year of competition, students will design the internal components of a hybrid Camaro, then run computer tests and simulations before sending in their proposal. If competition organizers like what they see, the team gets a new Camaro delivered to campus sometime next summer.

They must design the car to fit a set of technical specifications, including achieving zero to 60 mph in less than 5.9 seconds. Organizers have asked that students push the envelope with innovation and go beyond using standard hybrid components like a battery pack and charger. This could mean putting independent motors on each rear wheel, or trying any number of cutting-edge technologies.

“The Camaro is American muscle – it’s supposed to roar, make a lot of noise and drink a lot of fuel,” said Gowda with a laugh. “We have to make that into a hybrid that goes fast, makes a lot of noise, is fuel efficient – and is something people still want to buy.”

Sylvie Troxel, now in her fourth year as a UW EcoCAR member, works on mechanical components near the end of last year's competition.

Sylvie Troxel, now in her fourth year as a UW EcoCAR member, works on mechanical components near the end of last year’s competition.UW EcoCAR

Fabien started working with students on electric vehicles seven years ago as part of a senior capstone course in mechanical engineering. After his students successfully converted a Honda Accord into an electric car, Fabien along with Per Reinhall, professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department, thought they were ready for the EcoCAR 2 competition that began in 2011 and ran for three years. The competition is a unique, prestigious partnership between government, industry and academia, Fabien said.

So far this fall, the team already has 60 members and about half of those are new recruits. The key this year will be building a strong base of new talent for when most of the team’s leadership graduates next spring.

Having that many hands can only help the UW’s prospects, said Sylvie Troxel, mechanical team co-lead and a senior in mechanical engineering. She has been on the team since freshman year and remembers the multiple all-nighters and pyramid stacks of energy drinks.

“Hopefully, we’ll get better scores in competition and a little more sleep,” she said.


For more information, contact the team’s communications manager, Kate Kitto, at kkitto@uw.edu or 503-754-8515 and Fabien at fabien@uw.edu or 206-543-6915.