Green Wheels: The Student Competition That Comes With a Job

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Sometimes it pays to be a geeky student engineer. General Motors, for instance, has hired no less than 100 young mechanical and electrical graduates who've been through the federal college eco-car competitions. It's a three-year immersion for the slide-rule set, in which they design a car, build it, and then in the third year trouble-shoot the inevitable bugs.

EcoCar2 is now in its second year, and students at 15 universities nationwide have just taken delivery of identical Chevrolet Malibu Eco models. The students tear them apart and install biodiesel, ethanol burners and even hydrogen fuel cells in an attempt to make them more green.

The concept has a history, going back more than 20 years. There was a Methanol Marathon in 1989, and the Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge of 1990 to 1993.

I've been to a number of the competitions, and it's great to see the cars as works in progress, with the guts lying in a welter of wrenches and laptop computers as a pair of sneakered feet protrude from underneath a chassis. That's still going on today.

Tom Goddette, a student at Mississippi State, said his team has already ripped apart their Malibu (which even in stock form gets 40 mpg on the highway) and are replacing the gas engine with a 1.4-liter turbo taken from the Chevy Cruze. That means some modifications so it can be flex-fuel, but the students are up to the task. "Our goal is to give it 210 miles of range, with 40 to 50 miles of all-electric range," he said.

Don't be surprised if Goddette ends up as an auto engineer. Trevor Crain, the controls lead for the first-time team at the University of Washington, said his group is adding in a 1.7-liter diesel engine, running B20 diesel, sourced from the Opel Corsa (also a GM product). "Diesels have won the competition many times because they're inherently fuel efficient, but controlling emissions is the tough part," Crain said. That means the students have to get creative with controlling nitrogen oxide and capturing particulates, the kind of skill that will come in handy once they embark on professional careers.

The UW car is technically interesting, combining a six-speed automatic transmission with a monster-sized 145-kilowatt electric motor. This is a Malibu with huge performance potential. "We want to build a car that people would really want to buy," Crain said.

GM's Cindy Svetska works with the EcoCar2 teams. "By hiring some of the students we've ended up with energized, invigorated long-term engineers."

If you don't think EcoCar2 is a good idea, then you probably don't like mom and apple pie, either. It's all about bringing innovation into the American auto industry. It's about supporting jobs here rather than exporting them. This issue deserves bipartisan support.


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