If you’re looking for attention, drive an American muscle car, like a Chevrolet Camaro. The unmistakable exhaust growl of a V8 turns heads pretty quickly. If you’re desperate for attention, you can try what I did on Tuesday, and drive one covered in red, black, and grey racing stripes and 60-odd sponsor logos—through packed Hollywood streets.
But as I turned through the intersection at Hollywood and Highland, none of the tourists looked up from the Walk of Fame. They didn’t hear me coming. This Camaro has been converted to cruise on electric power, and it’s not until my co-driver flips a switch to enable performance mode that the engine roars into life with a loud thraaap, and people turn and stare.
That co-driver is an engineering student from Ohio State University, who converted this Camaro to run on a battery as part of the US Department of Energy’s EcoCAR3 competition. This week, the team won first place, beating 15 other universities at the end of a grueling four-year competition to future-proof an iconic muscle car whose gas guzzling nature could soon render it obsolete.
The challenge to the students was to re-make the 2016 Camaros (donated by GM), to demonstrate new technologies. EcoCAR3 isn’t just about making a car greener. Judges looked at criteria from energy efficiency to performance to consumer appeal. That last one is important: The students had to re-imagine the Camaro in a way that was not just Earth-friendly but also consumer-friendly—something enthusiasts would still want to buy.
“We challenged these students with the same engineering challenges they’ll face when they get out into the industry,” says Kristen Wahl, director of the competition at Argonne National Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy. “So it’s not just ‘let’s make this really fuel efficient.’ It has to do everything else at the same time.”
The competition started in 2014, and the teams have been evaluated at the end of each year. For the finale, the teams spent two weeks in four cities, demonstrating basic safety, dashing off 0-60 sprints at the Fontana Speedway in California, and giving detailed engineering presentations. Ohio’s team scooped 895 points out of a possible 1,000 for the win.
All 16 vehicles were on display at the Magic Castle in Hollywood this week, and proud student teams in matching t-shirts clustered around their creations to show off their various approaches. Ohio State, which won every stage of this competition, ripped out the V6 that came with the car and slotted in a smaller 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine, a whacking great big electric motor, and a 19 kWh battery, for a performance hybrid setup. The motor sits under the rear seat, and the fuel tank that usually occupies that space has been slashed to half its normal size.
“We wanted something that would be able to compete in performance, but also do really well in fuel economy and emissions,” says Simon Trask, mechanical and electrical engineering student at Ohio State.
The result is sporty indeed. The team used an automated manual gearbox, so the car looks like a normal auto. When I pulled out of its neatly lined up display slot in the parking lot and onto the streets, I had two pedals, not three, and just had to select Drive on the shifter. But the car’s computers selected the correct gear and dealt with all the clutch-stuff. That meant some shifts felt hard when I was driving it, particularly when I put my foot down, but also sporty, and, crucially, more efficient than a traditional slushbox transmission.
Other teams did more to appeal to the traditional muscle car buyer. Virginia Tech (unofficial slogan: Let’s Make EcoCar V8 Again) swapped the original 3.6-liter V6 for a 5.3-liter V8 from a Chevy Silverado, but also added a custom motor under the rear seats. The motor can power the the car, even if it makes the car feel more like a Prius than a Camaro. “It’s all you need to get around town, or get up to speed on the highway,” says Sam Reinsel, an engineering major on the Virginia Tech team. Counting the motor and the engine, the car averages 26 mpg-equivalent. A V8 Camaro you can buy today gets more like 22 mpg.
Other teams went small: The University of Washington team (which had the most eye catching wrap, with a fade from grey at the front to a vivid purple at the back) installed a tiny 800-cc motorcycle engine. The main driving force for this vehicle is two electric motors and a 19 kWh battery; the wee engine is just a range extender, generating electricity when the battery is flat. (The BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt use this approach.) “We can run the car in EV mode and not use any fuel at all if we want to,” says Kellen Potocsnak who leads communications for the team
Reinsel has been part of the competition since the beginning, and graduates this year. “It’s a little bittersweet saying goodbye to it,” he says. But good things lie ahead. Thanks in part to their participation, his teammates have landed jobs at outfits like GM, SpaceX, and electric bus builder Protera. Reinsel is headed for MathWorks, an automotive software firm.
For the rest of them, a whole new competition starts up again year. They might run into people they know: Oftentimes, the mentors from GM who help university teams are past participants themselves. Now, they’re turning their skills to help the next generation of engineers design and build new vehicles that everyone can buy.
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