These students, from Colorado State University, have spent the past three years transforming an ordinary Chevy Malibu into a revolutionary vehicle. At first glance, it still looks like a regular sedan. But under the hood, they've installed a hybrid powertrain that contains both hydrogen and electric power sources. Even by the unusual standards of the Department of Energy competition they're participating in, it's an outlier.
That's exactly what they had in mind.
"We didn't want to come here and tell them how to build a better Volt," said Tom Bradley, faculty adviser for the Colorado State team. "They already know how to do that. We can tell them how to think about these possibilities in a whole new way."
The Colorado State team believes their car might be the first of its kind, a bridge between hydrogen and electric cars. They are one of 15 teams that came to GM's Milford Proving Grounds last week for the final stretch of the EcoCar2 competition, which challenges regular college students who have no almost automotive experience to do nothing less than reinvent the American car. The teams have come from across North America, and include schools like Ohio State and Virginia Tech that have a long history of participating in similar competitions and schools like Mississippi State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University that are here for the first time.
After three years of work, it all comes down to this. The teams have operated 24 hours a day for almost two weeks here at the Proving Grounds, running a gamut of tests that include a 310-point safety inspection, emissions and energy-consumption tests and road tests, in which professional GM drivers ensure they're road worthy. The winning team will be announced tonight in Washington D.C.
Revolutionary cars, ordinary package
While other green-car competitions encourage extreme designs, this one comes with a somewhat constraining twist: Yes, students must improve fuel economy and reduce emissions, but in the end, they still have to have a car that would appeal to mainstream customers. In practical terms, that means they must keep conveniences like air conditioning and trunk space.
Along those lines, the team from Embry-Riddle has not only turned its Malibu into a hybrid that's driven by an electric motor and runs on biodiesel, the students have tried to make it feel like a sports car. They've installed Penske racing shocks and put a more aggressive-looking grille on the car and have tested it at Daytona International Speedway.
"Eco and hybrid cars attract a certain customer; they don't attract a sports-minded customer," said James Wallace, a student on the Embry-Riddle team. "I drive a Camaro. But if we can make a car that's more exciting, I think you can attract a whole different customer." The car has the second-fastest 0-to-60-mph time of any here at the competition, but for Wallace, who worked for a jet-car racing team last summer, "it's still a little slow."
Reducing drag is paramount. Borrowing technology from the aviation side of their school, Embry-Riddle's team has installed a row of vortex generators across the roof and added brushes that resemble long brooms to the undersides of the car. They help keep air flowing backward instead of flowing out the sides.
Ohio State's team worked with Cooper Tire to develop a custom-made tire that provides ultra-low resistance. Together, they've removed the metal cords found in most tires and replaced them with a Kevlar cord, gaining two to three percent in efficiency. The team tackled the emissions-reducing part of the challenge by adding an electrical system that preheats the car's catalyst. In the first minute of a cold start, cars expel 80 to 90 percent of their emissions one student says. By warming up the catalyst beforehand, those emissions are eliminated.
EcoCar alumns a step ahead
"It's amazing what some of these teams come up with," said John Haraf, the director of electrification controls integration at General Motors who serves as a liaison to the EcoCar2 competitors. GM uses the competition as fertile recruiting ground for its next generation of engineers. Forty percent of the EcoCar graduates hired by the company file records of invention or apply for patents within their first three years on the job.
"We had one intern who, a guy who found a problem, found a solution, calibrated a solution and patented it," Haraf said. "About half the time, you get interns and it takes them a lot of time to get up and running, just to acquaint themselves with a car. This program, it sets them up to hit the ground running."
Over its 25-year history, the advanced-vehicle programs run by the DOE and administered by the Argonne National Laboratory have traditionally churned out engineers focused on mechanical aspects of the car. As cars have transformed into rolling computers in the past decade, containing dozens of electronic control units, the competition has increasingly focused on attracting talented software engineers to the auto industry.
Software upgrades were one of the primary focuses of the University of Washington team, which overhauled the Malibu's infotainment system. Mitchell Loeppky, a junior on the team, added a 12-inch touchscreen that functions a lot like the one found in the Tesla Model S – but he took that groundbreaking premise and made it better.
First, Loeppky worked with Hewlett Packard on an industrial-design change, using a 3-D printer to create an overlay for the touchscreen that helps guide fingers otherwise lost on the touchscreen, a potential distraction for drivers. Then he added vibration to the screen, which gives drivers feedback on where they are and what controls they're using. Finally, he spent time researching fonts, and found that it took drivers 30 percent less time to read "Alright Sans" than the fonts typically used in automotive infotainment systems.
Awaiting the final results
At the core of the competition remains the powertrains. Like Ohio State, most of the teams here opted for engines that either run on an E85 fuel blend or biodiesel. Everyone is curious about the Colorado State's car. Its only emission is water. Its total range is approximately 250 miles, and it gets 80 to 90 MPGe, according to team members., some of whom have jobs already lined up at the likes of General Motors, Tesla and Lockheed Martin.
"It's very challenging to work on, because there is no reference," said CSU student Jake Bucher. "That's really exciting too. You have to learn a lot just to work on this car. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Like many teams, they're confident in the groundbreaking technology at the center of the car. It's the little things they're worried about. A blow fuse. A sensor failure. A leaky transmission. Standing around Black Lake at the Proving Grounds, it's these sort of hiccups that have befallen other teams.
After the GM driver concludes the evaluation, Bradley, the faculty adviser, walks over to confer with the driver and a CSU student who rode shotgun during the test. The rest of the team stand back and await a sign of whether they passed or failed. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? They get a shrug.
Several excruciating minutes pass, before Bradley finally comes back.
"I think we're good," Bradley finally says.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.