Ever looked at your car and thought “I bet I could improve its engineering”? That’s the challenge for the student teams that participate in EcoCAR 3, a competition sponsored by General Motors and the US Department of Energy. Run by Argonne National Laboratory, it’s a four-year program that’s had each team take the conventionally powered Camaro sports car and turn it into a high-performance hybrid.
EcoCAR 3 is the latest in a long-running series of Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions sponsored by DOE. The first, the Methanol Marathon, took place between 1988 and 1989 and involved 15 teams from North American colleges and universities, each of which had to convert 1988 Chevrolet Corsicas to use alcohol as a fuel. Subsequent ATVCs saw student teams convert vehicles to use natural gas or propane, add hybrid systems, or just boost fuel efficiency.
“The teams are trying to emulate the vehicle-development process in four years and get to the point where we have a high-performance vehicle but also with lower tailpipe emissions and also improved fuel economy,” explained Ann Schlenker, Director of Argonne’s Center for Transportation Research.
“Last year, the students were really completing the integration of hardware—packaging things in the vehicle. This last year has been spent on refinement, so how you refine the ride and handling, maybe the 0-60 time, lowering emissions and improving fuel economy, switching between electric power and the gasoline engine. So it’s really refinement, improvement, and some innovation enhancements to get to a really stellar driving vehicle,” she said.
As with the two previous EcoCAR competitions, the challenge is not as simple as just reengineering the vehicles; each team is also judged on project management, communications and outreach programs, and technical presentations. The culmination of EcoCAR 3 involved several days of testing at GM’s proving grounds in Yuma, Arizona, followed by a track-day event held at the Auto Club Speedway in California. Each team’s car is inspected, then put through its paces in a number of different tests, including energy consumption, performance testing, ride quality, and so on.
16 teams, 16 different designs
The 16 teams took various different approaches to the problem of reengineering a Camaro into a high-performance hybrid. The most common approach was a post-transmission parallel architecture, where the electric motor acts on the rear wheels independently of the internal combustion engine. But a number of teams opting for that strategy also used an additional electric motor upstream of the transmission that can take power from the engine to charge the batteries (a so-called series-parallel hybrid).
Most of the other teams went with a pre-transmission layout, combining torque from the engine and electric motor before the gearbox. But the University of Washington bucked all those trends and turned its Camaro into a true series hybrid, where the engine is connected to an electric motor that charges the battery. The battery, in turn feeds a pair of electric motors, one for each rear wheel.
Almost all the teams created plug-in hybrid EVs, with the exception of the University of Tennessee. When I spoke to UT student Emily King back in 2016, she told me that decision was based on local market research she and her colleagues conducted.
None of the 16 teams retained the original Camaro 3.6L V6 engine. The most common replacement was GM’s 2.4L inline four-cylinder LEA engine, in some cases converted to use either E10 or E85 ethanol. Several others downsized even further, picking 2.0L inline fours from the GM engine range, although Virginia Tech went in the other direction and picked a 5.3L small-block V8. And in two cases, the students ventured outside the GM crate engine catalog. The University of Washington chose a Honda motorcycle engine—it was the pure series hybrid, remember—and the University of Waterloo installed a similarly small-capacity engine, in this case Weber’s MPE 850, which is more commonly found in outboard motors for marine applications.
What makes all of this so interesting—to me at least—is that the students that participate in the EcoCAR 3 competition do so despite having a regular class load at the same time. Gabe DiDomenico, a mechanical engineering student at Colorado State University explained to me what he and his colleagues gained from the experience. “Our whole thing has been about challenging ourselves and not designing the easiest car. We’ve really been trying to bring innovation to the project, like trying to incorporate a vehicle-to-grid capable battery and charger to the vehicle and using a lot of advanced composite materials,” he said.
Competition focuses the mind
In the past, I’ve explored how car companies use the competitive environment of motorsports as a way to focus engineering teams. DiDomenico told me that EcoCAR 3’s deadlines had a similar effect on him and his fellow students.
“The time pressure has been a factor, especially since so many of our students are only around for one year,” he told me. (Most of CSU’s team are students from the school’s Department of Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Program, so they only have a year to spare.) “Ultimately though, we feel we brought a car to this competition that’s showroom ready. We hit all our deadlines, and it was difficult while it was going. But the time pressure has relaxed a little now we’re at the end of the road,” he said.
DiDomenico told me that his experience with EcoCAR 3 has meant he’ll be pursuing a career in automotive engineering once he graduates. “When I joined the project, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with my career. It showed me I’m interested in and have a passion for the auto industry and electrification,” he said. When I asked if he’d recommend taking part to other students, he answered enthusiastically. “This competition has been hands-down the best learning experience I’ve had in my college career. It’s very hands on, it’s following industry standards, and you get to learn how the industry works, how vehicle development works. It’s all student lead, student designed, and student tested. You can’t beat the learning experience that EcoCAR offers,” he told me.
While I’m in awe of all of the teams’ accomplishments, EcoCAR 3 is a competition, and that means there has to be a winner. As mentioned up top, yet again that was Ohio State, which scored 895 points out of a maximum of 1000. Among its achievements was a hybrid with 20-percent greater fuel efficiency than the rest, in part thanks to an electrically heated catalyst that dropped emissions upon startup by 85 percent.
“The biggest challenge for Year Four was really just creating a vehicle that was better than we had in Year Three and being able to get at this performance aspect of a hybrid-electric vehicle while also focusing very heavily on reducing emissions,” said Briana Antinoro, co-communications manager for the team. “We get very hands-on. We work with every component within the car.”
West Virginia University finished in second place, and the University of Alabama claimed the final place on the podium.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what EcoCAR 4 has in stock for us.