EcoCAR 2 Revs Students Up with Real-World Automotive Experience

This fantastic article about the EcoCAR 2 competition was written by Liz Dennerlein and appeared in USA Today College on Sunday, November 17, 2013. You can find the original article at this link.

Before he went to college, Chris Golecki only knew how to change the oil and tires on his car.

Now a graduate student, Golecki is helping lead the way to a more sustainable automotive world by competing in EcoCAR 2.

The collegiate automotive engineering competition, which is in its third and final year, challenges 15 universities across North America to reduce the environmental impact of a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu while retaining its performance, safety and consumer acceptability.

Participating schools include Colorado State, North Carolina State, Purdue, University of Victoria (Canada), the University of Waterloo, Wayne State University and Virginia Tech, among others.

The Mississippi State University EcoCAR team.

The Mississippi State University EcoCAR team.

“Through my education at Penn State, I built the baseline principles of what I needed to understand and then by joining the Advanced Vehicle Team (and working on the competition) it just was really a high-paced application of everything I learned,” Golecki says.

Kristen De La Rosa, director of EcoCAR 2, says the competition is designed to give students hands-on experience, exposing them to the latest engineering tools, methods and mentors.

Students, typically mechanical engineers, have the option of competing in EcoCAR 2 as part of a senior design course. However, De La Rosa says a handful of other students, like business and communication majors, tend to get involved on their own time as well.

There are about about 1,000 individuals in the program –inlcuding students, graduate students, mentors, faculty and organizers. Each of the 15 universities has a team — some have only 15 members, while others have as many as 100.

“We believe that if we can provide the right training ground for (students) when they’re in school they will develop and really go into the industry ready to bring new technology to the market and bring new innovations,” De La Rosa says.

EcoCAR 2 is a part of the Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTC) sponsored by sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The competition also focuses on finding ways to reduce fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and tailpipe emissions, De La Rosa says.

“We certainly see that the next hundred years are going to be focused on advanced technologies and electrification is going to be part of that,” she says. “We really felt like training students on electric vehicle technology, whether it’s hybrids, electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles or alternative fuel vehicle technology, is the way of the future.”

Trevor Crain, a third year master’s student in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, helped write a proposal for the university’s entry in EcoCAR 2 when he was a senior.

Crain says the proposal stemmed from the fact that many students at the University of Washington expressed interest in automotive engineering, but didn’t have the opportunity to experiment in the field. EcoCAR 2 was the perfect outlet.

“It’s the type of practical, hands-on kind of application that you honestly just can’t get in a classroom,” Crain says. “I really do believe that classroom work is incredibly important but I think that it needs to be supplemented with competitions like this — you get a chance to interact with other engineering students that you’d never be able to in a classroom.”

Cheyenne Sexton, a Penn State senior majoring in public relations, says the work students put into the competition is much different from the work they’ll put into a class.

“When the team has a task and there are meetings I know it’s always interesting to hear someone say, ‘Oh I think I’m making really good progress right now. I’m on track.’ And then someone else will say, ‘Oh, well you have about 50 to 60 more hours of work with that project,’ ” Sexton says. “If you put that in terms of a class project — working straight in the classroom that’s a lot of hours, but in the garage or in the EcoCAR 2 competition thats about normal.”

Over the three year competition, De La Rosa estimates that an average team will spend about 10,000 man hours working on the car.

“All of us are a part of EcoCAR 2 not because we have to, but because we want to,” Sexton says. “Honestly, I think it’s some of the best time I have spent devoted to something so beneficial to my future.”

Last year, Penn State won second year of the competition series. Even though the win was a gratifying moment, Gelocki says he still would’ve been satisfied had Penn State come in last place.

“After putting in hundreds and hundreds of hours I wouldn’t care if [Penn State] lost,” Gelocki says. “From the team’s standpoint we did the best we could. If we won last place I would’ve been just as happy with the effort that we put forth.”

The winning team receives a cash prize and some of the highest performing students often get job offers from companies like General Motors.

“These students — they’re responsible for tens of thousands of dollars — they’re managing huge projects,” De La Rosa says. “These are things that people often need many, many years of experience in the real world before they can command and these students are having to do it at a very young age and in their academic life.”