The Alternative Future: A Look at a Student Design Team that is Making Eco-friendly Cars a Reality

Patrick Carroll -
Posted on: July 19, 2014

This past June, the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) was at the GM proving grounds in Milford, Michigan to take part in the final evaluation of the EcoCAR 2 competition: a North American engineering collegiate competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy and General Motors.  Competing against 14 other schools from across North America, UWAFT looked to make a car that was innovative, eco-friendly and performance driven while maintaining consumer acceptability.  This vision was realized through a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, converted into a Series Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.  The car can run on pure electricity as well as E85, a biofuel that burns cleaner than regular gasoline and can be made from corn or sugar cane.  The idea is that one day, eco-cars such as UWAFT’s will become a standard design in the automotive industry.

The competition, of course, started long before the final events in June.  Three years ago, UWAFT selected its vehicle architecture and looked at different areas where the stock car could be improved.  Since then, the technical team has put many hours and all-nighters into making this design work.  Advanced tools such as Hardware-in-the-loop simulation and CAD allowed the team to design their vehicle without the car in front of them.  UWAFT and the EcoCAR competition follow an advanced model-based design process, which is developed from GM’s own vehicle design process, made up of specific design milestones and objectives during vehicle development.

On top of technical work, a recently developed partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University allowed UWAFT to expand the business and communications areas of the team.  On the outreach side, the team has continued to attend numerous events such as EcoFest and Waterloo Earth Day.  These events have been great opportunities to reach out to the public and educate people about alternative fuels, and the EcoCAR 2 competition.  The business team has also been helpful in securing sponsorships, managing human resources and budget tracking.  Although these may seem like nominal tasks compared to building a car, these two sub-teams have been key to keeping work on track throughout the competition.

The second and third years of the competition saw UWAFT implement the design into the car and refine it for optimal performance.  As the competition approached, there was a lot of time and energy devoted to make the EcoCAR a reality.  The controls, electrical and mechanical teams had to work closely together to integrate all of the intended components into the car; a challenging process considering that UWAFT’s Malibu has three electric motors, an engine, and a Lithium-Ion battery pack!

At General Motors’ Milford Proving Ground for the year three competition, UWAFT had worked alongside a dedicated GM technician fixing any last minute issues which arose during vehicle testing and refinement.  A lot of work was put in in only a few short days!  However, during one event, the car’s belted generator system suffered a catastrophic failure when the idler pulley broke.  The team pushed on to complete as many events as possible, and performed well during the accompanying design presentations by impressing many high ranking engineers and executives.  The team ended up placing 11th out of 15 teams.  A lot of lessons were learned from the EcoCAR 2 competition, and the team is eager to draw on these for years to come.

Today, UWAFT is looking forward to the beginning of EcoCAR 3 in September where the team will have four years to redesign and rebuild the first ever hybrid Chevrolet Camaro.  The team is always looking for new members and there are plenty of places to help out.  Through the development of a road-worthy, full-size passenger vehicle, UWAFT members perform the exact same work as full-time engineers; in all areas of the vehicle from HMI development, to embedded control systems and mechanical system design.  UWAFT is looking for students in all areas of engineering.  Through outreach programs and advanced vehicle technology competitions, UWAFT is constantly striving to develop innovative solutions to the world’s environmental challenges.  As many UWAFT alumni can attest, this experience is a great way to develop engineering skills and can directly lead to exciting job opportunities.

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