UW Team Designing Super-Hybrid Car

Source: Katherine Long, Seattle Times, November 28, 2011. University of Washington engineering students are part of a national competition to design a hybrid electric car that would get great mileage and appeal to consumers.

Is the Prius not efficient enough for you? Are electric cars too limiting? How about an American-made hybrid that goes 45 to 50 miles on an electric charge, then switches to biodiesel and gets 100 miles to the gallon?

If that sounds like a winner, a team of mechanical-engineering students at the University of Washington thinks so, too. They’re designing just such a car as part of a three-year national competition to turn a Chevy Malibu into a super-hybrid.

This is the first year the UW’s engineering school — better known for aviation, not autos — has participated in the 23-year-old car-design competition, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“In the past month or so, we’ve gone from knowing nothing about hybrids to knowing about different architectures, and how they’re controlled,” said Trevor Crain, a UW mechanical-engineering graduate student.

You won’t see this super-Malibu in dealers’ showrooms when the competition is over, though. “It’s going to be a very expensive, one-off, million-dollar car,” said Brian Fabien, a UW professor of mechanical engineering who is overseeing the design team.

It’s the practice of designing and building a working electric-biodiesel hybrid that counts. That kind of training is likely to lead immediately to engineering jobs in the auto industry for the students who participate, said Kristen de La Rosa, director of the EcoCAR2 competition for Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, one of the Energy Department’s oldest and largest national labs for science and engineering research.

“They’re hot commodities when they graduate,” de La Rosa said. “They can name their price.”

In order for the team to be selected for the competition, students had to write a proposal that showed the UW’s engineering curriculum would support advanced vehicle design, and that the College of Engineering would support the team. The team also had to simulate a specified vehicle’s fuel economy and performance abilities, and report the results of these simulations, Crain said.

The 15 schools selected for the competition will get a Chevy Malibu next spring, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and software needed to design the car. Some members of the UW team have already been to Detroit five times, and the competition will include a trip to the automaker’s proving grounds in Detroit and Yuma, Ariz.

For students, the future is clear: Cars need to be a lot more efficient. Hybrids are a good intermediate step, even if electric cars or some other alternately-fueled vehicle eventually rule the highway, said graduate engineering student Trevor Fayer.

Sure, there are hybrid vehicles out there already, but they are often twice as expensive as gas-powered cars. They are “weird, pod-shaped” vehicles, said Tyler Rose, an MBA student in the UW’s Foster School of Business. While hybrids are popular in environmentally conscious Seattle, they have not sold as well in Middle America.

In short: “There are significant engineering challenges left,” Fabien said.

A proposed new federal rule would require all passenger vehicles sold in 2025 to get an average of 55 miles to the gallon. To design the next generation of autos, “we’re going to need some engineers to help this country do this,” Crain said.

Right now, the students are using 3-D modeling software and a simulation machine — the same tools auto designers use in Detroit — to perform virtual tests on their computer-designed, virtual car. “This is an exciting time — creative ideas are being thrown around,” Rose said.

About 40 students are on the team, which includes business-school students and graphic artists, a recognition that designing and selling a car takes more than good engineering. The students all will get some form of college credit for the work; for example, engineering students can receive senior-level elective credits.

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Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.