University of Victoria students work on car of the future

Take away the University of Victoria decals and sponsor stickers and it looks like any other 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, but the sedan parked in the university’s engineering garage is far from ordinary.

The white car is UVic’s entry into a North American competition that also represents a step into the future for engineering and business students, a stream of research money for UVic and a lure for some of the best and brightest young minds looking for a post-secondary institution.

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“This program helps train future leaders of auto technology and, through the process, we push the boundaries of automotive technology to make sure we can have cleaner vehicles that are faster, greener and all that, without sacrificing customer satisfaction,” said mechanical engineering professor Zuomin Dong.

The car, now getting its final touches before being shipped to a General Motors proving ground for testing, is UVic’s entry into the 26th annual Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition — EcoCAR 2: Plugging into the Future — sponsored mainly by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors.

UVic is one of 15 teams that have been working on the project since April 2011.

Over the last three years, the UVic team has included 40 students from mechanical, electrical, computer and software engineering, and business programs who have been charged with reducing the environmental impact of a stock Malibu by improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions, while maintaining or improving vehicle performance and consumer appeal.

To do that, the team had to redesign and refit the car with next-generation plug-in hybrid-electric powertrain technology.

“We have improved the vehicle in every way,” said Dong, who expects the team will do well. “We are always trying to do our best to push the boundary.”

Pushing boundaries means high risk, but Dong notes it also means high rewards. “It’s a very tough competition. We are competing with all the top schools who are all larger than UVic.”

A production Malibu can accelerate to 96.56 km/h (60 mph) in 8.2 seconds, and UVic aims to hit that mark in 5.8 seconds while reducing the length it takes to brake to 43.5 metres from 43.7 metres.

The three-year competition started with computer modelling in the first year. Teams were given the car in the second year.

The process moves through design to refinement and optimization, said GM’s Amanda Kalhous. While students get a chance to put their theoretical learning to the practical test, GM also wins, she said.

“One of the main benefits is new talent. We get engineers coming from school with hands-on experience with our systems,” Kalhous said.

That’s what has Ted Alley fired up. The third-year mechanical engineering student said the project has been all-consuming but has him looking at a future in the vehicle game.

“I think spending a lot of time here is absolutely invaluable for developing my engineering skills perhaps more than classes do,” he said, noting he hopes the experience will pay off, allowing him to pursue a career in hybrid or electric vehicle development. “Cars are such a big part of everyone’s life, so working to make them better and make them how I think they should be made would be incredible.”

Dan Prescott, a mechanical engineering grad student who is the controls lead on this project, said the experience is invaluable regardless of whether vehicle design is your path.

“It’s like a real industrial experience, and you get to work with a lot of technology you wouldn’t normally get to work on in school.”

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