DOE and GM Unveil EcoCAR Challenge Designs; GM Helps Cities Prepare for Plug-in Hybrids

The 17 student teams competing in EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge appear to have a clear vision of the automotive future, as all of the teams are pursuing designs that incorporate lithium-ion batteries and the ability to plug the vehicles into an electrical outlet. All of the vehicles will also use renewable energy or renewable fuels to minimize their consumption of petroleum.

Established by DOE and General Motors Corporation (GM), EcoCAR is a three-year competition that challenges engineering students at North American universities to re-engineer a 2009 GM Saturn VUE vehicle to achieve improved fuel economy and reduced emissions while retaining the vehicle’s performance, safety, and consumer appeal. It also gives the students a chance to design and build advanced vehicles that demonstrate cutting-edge automotive technologies.

GM is providing the vehicles, components, seed money, technical mentoring, and operational support for the competition, while DOE and its Argonne National Laboratory are providing competition management, team evaluation, and technical and logistical support. Along with DOE and GM, EcoCAR sponsors include the Canadian government and the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

The common approach of the 17 EcoCAR teams is not a huge surprise, as the teams are trying to meet CARB’s regulations for zero-emissions vehicles. To meet those regulations, one team-the University of Ontario Institute of Technology-plans to build an all-electric vehicle, also known as a full-function electric vehicle. Eight teams are building extended-range electric vehicles, which are electric vehicles that include a small engine and generator to provide extra electric power on extended trips.

Six teams are building plug-in hybrids, which are essentially hybrid electric vehicles with oversized battery packs. Those battery packs allow for trips of up to 40 miles using electric power only, but otherwise, the vehicle acts as a typical hybrid, with the engine and electric motor working together to propel the vehicle. Finally, two of the teams will build plug-in hybrids that feature hydrogen-powered fuel cells instead of engines.

Choosing the design is the first-year goal for the competition; over the next two years, the teams will develop working vehicles that will face off against one another in competitive events.

For details about the teams and technologies, see the new Green Garage Web site.

In related automotive news, GM is preparing to launch its extended-range electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, and communities that want to help test the vehicle will need to be “plug-in-ready.”

According to GM, that preparation includes installing public and workplace charging infrastructure, setting consumer-friendly electricity rates, offering renewable electricity options and adjusting codes and permitting rules to encourage vehicle charging. Local governments and corporations can also commit to purchasing plug-in vehicles, and they can offer incentives to make the technology more affordable to consumers.

Other incentives, such as access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes, are also a plus.

GM plans to test the vehicles in San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.; and other plug-in-ready communities. GM outlined its comprehensive plan of action at the Washington Auto Show, which took place last week. The Chevy Volt was named the 2009 Green Car Vision Award winner at the show, beating out the fuel-cell-powered Honda FCX Clarity and the plug-in hybrid Fisker Karma, as well as two all-electric cars: the Mini E and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

Although GM is charging ahead with its plans to launch the Chevy Volt, the company announced in December that it will delay construction of a manufacturing plant in Flint, Michigan, that was slated to produce the 1.4-liter engines for the Volt and the Chevy Cruze.

Recently, the company also suspended its construction contracts for the Flint Engine Plant. GM says that its plans for the engine plant have not changed, but the company’s management continues to keep the plant construction on hold, and the construction contracts were suspended to keep costs down.

While GM moves ahead on its Chevy Volt, the Ford Motor Company is planning to launch its first commercial plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) in 2012. Ford announced yesterday that it has selected Johnson Controls-Saft to supply a complete lithium-ion battery system for the vehicle.

Meanwhile, Ford has converted some of its Ford Escape Hybrids into PHEVs and is providing the vehicles to eight utility partners located throughout the United States. The utilities will test the vehicles under real-world conditions through a program coordinated by Ford and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

GM is also working with EPRI and a coalition of more than 40 utilities to address the commercialization of plug-in electric vehicles. The company is helping to create standards for the electric vehicle charging interface.

Kevin Eber is a senior science writer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In that capacity, he has promoted energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies for nearly 20 years. 

This article was first published in the U.S. Department of Energy’s EERE Network News and was reprinted with permission.

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