VT student from Bedford works on EcoCAR 2 project

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By John Barnhart

    The EcoCAR 2 competition is an exciting challenge for Eli White, 2008 Liberty High School graduate and a mechanical engineering student at Virginia Tech. He likens it to working on a great puzzle.

    EcoCAR 2 is a three-year design competition sponsored by General Motors and the United States Department of Energy. The goal is to reduce the environmental impact of a 2013 Chevy Malibu. The Tech Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT) is in the middle of the project’s first year and White, a senior, is heading up the mechanical team.
    According to White, the HEVT consists of three sub-teams. The mechanical team is doing all the computer-aided drafting work. They are the largest of the three teams and their job is to make sure that all the car’s components will fit in the structure without compromising the car’s safety.
    This includes making sure they still have adequate ground clearance and that they keep reductions in space to the passenger compartment and trunk to a minimum. They also need to preserve the exterior appearance of the Malibu.
    Another issue that they are keeping in mind is that they want to minimize what they have to change on the stock vehicle. The more that has to move around, the greater the chance of introducing a problem.
    “You can design a very efficient car, but if it [the equipment] can’t fit in, it doesn’t matter,” said White, explaining the reality that they all must keep in mind on this project, noting that there are trade-offs everywhere.
    The electrical sub-team deals with the lithium-ion battery battery pack that the hybrid car will use along with the car’s electrical equipment, including how to wire everything together. Like the mechanical team, their responsibility is to make sure that the work is done safely.
    The third sub-team is the control team. Their job is to program the computer that regulates the vehicle.
    “They do all the brains of the car,” White said.
    The three sub-teams work closely together because everything they are designing must work in tandem.
    “It’s definitely the most complex problem I have ever worked on,” said White.    
    This year, the team has been exclusively involved in design work. The second year will involve actually modifying a stock 2013 Malibu, which will be delivered to them fresh off a General Motors assembly line. White will still be at Tech, working on a master’s degree in engineering, and will still be on the project serving as the overall team leader. He said that they expect to have modified the car and have it running by this time next year. Along with turning the car into a hybrid, White said that the team plans to replace the car’s stock engine with a General Motors LE9 engine. This is an engine that will run on E85 fuel — a fuel that consists of 85 percent ethanol.
    The final year involves refining the design. Then, in May, 2014, it will go to a GM proving ground where professional drivers will test it. The goal is a car that uses less energy and emits less greenhouse gasses while still maintaining the performance of the original car. The car must also be able to travel at least 200 miles on one 10-gallon tank of fuel and one charge on the battery. But that’s the minimum. The school that wins will build the car that goes the farthest beyond that minimum.
     White said that nothing they do will go into an actual production car. What it means for General Motors is that there will be engineers coming out of the participating universities with experience in working with hybrid cars.