Students Build Award-winning Car of the Future

Matthew Doude walks around in the mid-sized sports utility vehicle in his showroom in northeast Mississippi, pointing out the electric motor under the back cargo area and the PC found in the dash.

He casually points out it gets 38 miles per gallon and runs on B20 biodiesel or standard diesel fuel.

Wearing a pair of blue jeans and T-shirt, Doude sits in the driver’s seat and demonstrates how to use the wireless Internet and MP3 player on the built-in hard drive of the front display. He points to the dashboard display of the vehicle’s battery charge and average fuel economy.

Standing by the white automobile striped with maroon at the bottom, Doude sounds like a car salesman working on a commission.

But the blue jeans and T-shirt-wearing mechanical engineering graduate student at Mississippi State University (MSU) doesn’t work at a car dealership. His showroom is the high-tech automobile laboratory at the university’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, which designs next-generation materials and concepts for the transportation industry.

Doude walks plenty of people around the Challenge X vehicle he and other MSU students redesigned as part of the General Motors three-year competition with 17 institutions of higher learning to take a 2005 Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV and convert it into a hybrid vehicle. The competition challenged students from the United States and Canada to use their creativity and engineering knowledge of mechanics, electricity, fuel efficiency and other elements of vehicle design to transform the SUV into a vehicle of the future.

Student teams had free rein to redesign everything from its engine to fuel type to customer acceptability. Judges evaluated each vehicle in more than a dozen categories, such as acceleration, off-road performance, greenhouse gas impact, fuel economy, emissions and customer acceptability. They also presented technical research papers and oral presentations as part of the judging.

In recent months, MSU Challenge X team leader Doude has showed the vehicle to everyone from fourth graders to U.S. senators to talk show host Jay Leno. MSU’s team gained national notoriety after placing first in the overall competition, racking up $31,500 in prize money, including $15,000 from the National Science Foundation for the team’s outstanding faculty adviser, Marshall Molen.

Starting May 12th and through tomorrow, May 22nd, 15 members of MSU’s team have been taking their creation on a final spin as part of the competition. Traveling from East Brunswick, N.J., to Washington, D.C., the team is now participating in the competition’s Road Race. The final stretch aims to help spread awareness of the technologies and concepts used in creating the next-generation vehicles.

Students, General Motors and the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, also a competition organizer, understand the need to find better technologies consumers want to drive. From rising gasoline prices to instability in oil-rich regions of the Middle East to more industrialized countries like China and India guzzling up finite quantities of the fuel, energy analysts and scientists recognize the need to find alternatives to traditional transportation.

“Hybrids are the stepping stone to transition to a different type of energy,” Doude said.

Matt Young, an electrical engineering graduate at MSU, said the more he and others take the vehicle out in the public, more people like what they see.

“It gets people out of the mindset that a hybrid vehicle needs to be a small vehicle that nobody likes,” he said. “This is something people want.”

Automobile industry insiders point to the fuel economy increase of nearly double the vehicle’s original design and other technical engineering additions as examples of the Mississippi State students using innovation to contribute to better vehicles of tomorrow.

While many of the MSU students on the Challenge X team see the experience as a fun way to learn about fresh technology, it will help them when they leave college too. Eight have already been offered jobs in the automobile industry and others are expected to join them.

Before they graduate, MSU’s Challenge X students will continue designing new ways to improve what they can one day walk into a showroom and drive. They hope to participate in GM’s follow-up competition to Challenge X-called EcoCAR.

“We already submitted our application,” Doude said.

Robbie Ward is a research writer at Mississippi State University.

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