UW News

May 26, 2022

With EcoCAR, UW students experience post-COVID camaraderie under the hood of a hybrid vehicle

Last fall, University of Washington junior Caitlin Hillman headed to the Engineering Annex on her first day back since COVID-19 shut down campus. She was there for her inaugural meeting with the UW team for the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge — a four-year, multiuniversity competition in which students design and modify a car.

Hillman arrived an hour and a half early, so the team invited her to hang out while they worked on the car. She soaked up the flurry of activity around her.

“It was nice because I hadn’t had this whole team aspect since I was in high school,” she said. “It felt like, ‘There’s a ton of crazy things going on, but we’re going to have fun.’”

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, General Motors and MathWorks, the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge asked students to use electrification, advanced propulsion systems and automated vehicle technology to modify a 2019 Chevrolet Blazer. Students were charged with improving the car’s energy efficiency, safety and consumer appeal.

It’s an opportunity for students — across four years — to take a car from design to a consumer-ready product. The challenge culminated each year with a multiuniversity competition, and the final challenge took place from May 9 to 20 in Phoenix.

Like many student experiences, EcoCAR was interrupted during the pandemic. The UW team was kept from working on the car for nearly a year. Then when they were allowed to return in winter 2021 they were limited in the number of people in the garage at once and the hours they could work. After the team regained full access to the garage this fall, they came together to push the project over the finish line — working hands-on as a team again.

The UW team modified the Chevrolet Blazer to blend electric and gas propulsion as it accelerates and reaches high speeds. Team members added adaptive cruise control, which automatically speeds up and slows the car according to the speed of the car in front of it, and a feature establishing connectivity between the car and traffic lights, adjusting the car’s behavior depending on the color of the light. The students also developed an app that teaches people how to use these features.

All this work was accomplished by a team of roughly 100 UW students, who rotated on and off depending on the dates they entered school and graduated. They were organized into six “swimlanes,” groups responsible for different parts of the project, including propulsion systems integration and system safety. The communications “swimlane,” which Hillman led, included sponsorships, website management and hosting events at area schools to get young people interested in STEM.

Students worked with an adviser at General Motors, along with faculty advisers.

“Growing up, I was more into rockets, and I didn’t really consider automotive engineering. Once I joined EcoCAR it transformed me into a car person. I’m obsessed now,” said Noah Lin, a senior and UW EcoCAR’s engineering manager. “You can’t normally work on a car and talk to the engineer who made it.”

students standing with a car with logos on it

The UW EcoCAR team with their car at the final competition, which took place in Phoenix from May 9 to 20.Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions

Colleges across the country apply every four years to take part in EcoCAR. At the end of this cycle, 11 teams competed, and the UW was the only West Coast team that qualified.

At each year-end competition, teams were judged on different benchmarks showcasing their cars’ design, architecture, on-road safety and acceleration, energy consumption, autonomous features and more, in a series of events and presentations. They drove their completed cars at the final competition. The UW team placed tenth at the end of the challenge, disadvantaged against teams whose work on their cars was interrupted less by COVID restrictions.

But it’s not about winning, Lin says.

“I don’t really consider it a competition,” he said. “That’s because our teams help each other a lot. We’re more one giant team than 11 separate teams.”

Case in point: A week before the Georgia Tech team was due to ship its car to Arizona, it faced a crisis. The electric motor in its car requested too much torque and its half shaft, which sits between the motor and the wheel, sheared in half. The UW team had a spare half shaft ­— and it already had a close relationship with the Georgia Tech team.

The UW team shipped its half shaft to Georgia Tech, whose team went on to place first in the overall competition. For its efforts, the UW team earned the EcoCAR Collaboration Award.

With its four-year cycle, EcoCAR gives students experience working on a big project with a schedule similar to the four-year design process in industry. And the type of engineering design they get to do is applicable to any field, making them attractive candidates for many employers. And it shows: EcoCAR alumni have a 95% hiring rate after college.

Bailey Deck, a UW senior and propulsion system integration lead, didn’t know much about cars when she started with the team as a freshman. But she learned a lot by jumping into the project and doing the work.

“As a woman going into engineering and in the automotive industry, it can be intimidating, and not knowing anything can feel like a major roadblock to feeling comfortable or feeling like you have space in the industry,” she said. “The biggest thing I learned is about asking for help — being vulnerable with not knowing things and learning how to teach yourself through a collaborative project.”

Deck translated her experience into the sustainable infrastructure field and is starting a job at McKinstry after graduation.

Ultimately, learning from each other and getting their hands dirty — together — is what made EcoCAR so meaningful for many students who had long been isolated by the pandemic.

“If I were by myself and I was just working on a car, it would be enriching but I wouldn’t love it half as much,” said Lin the day after the end of the final competition. “What really made EcoCAR so amazing was working with the people there. It’s hitting me now that I’m going to be sad to not work with them anymore. My best memories of EcoCAR are the ones with all of them.”