The checkered flag waved for a team of engineering students from Virginia Tech last week, but the real winners may be the more than 40 students who landed jobs as a result of the EcoCAR competition, a contest to develop an advanced fuel-efficient vehicle.
General Motors -- which sponsors the event mainly with the U.S. Department of Energy -- has hired more than 40 students in the competition for engineering positions.
With automakers competing among themselves and with Silicon Valley, aerospace and other industries for engineering talent, the EcoCAR competition represents an opportunity for GM and suppliers to showcase and recruit for challenging careers.
Engineering advances also will be needed to meet increasingly stricter fuel economy requirements in the United States and other markets.
Each of the 16 collegiate teams in the three-year competition was given a standard Saturn Vue to retrofit with a fuel-efficient powertrain and other technologies. The vehicles later received Chevrolet logos after the Saturn brand was discontinued.
Battery maker A123 Systems Inc. also donated parts.
The students spent the first year designing the vehicles and years two and three building, testing and tweaking their cars.
Though the projects will not be mass produced, teams were charged with creating vehicles that had extended ranges, were environmentally friendly and were appealing to consumers in terms of safety and design.
Each vehicle went through GM's global vehicle development process and was tested for tailpipe emissions, performance and consumer acceptability.
The EcoCAR competition gives GM a way to attract and recruit talent, said Kent Helfrich, GM's executive director of electronic controls and software.
"We have a great opportunity to interact with these students on a long-term basis, teach them what we know, mentor them and then turn them loose, knowing that a lot of them will end up at GM and hoping they'll rise to be the leaders of the future," Helfrich said.
The Department of Energy provided consulting help from the Argonne National Laboratory and about $2 million in other support for EcoCAR.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, in an interview with Automotive News, said the Department of Energy supported the competition to help foster the next generation of engineers.
Chu said he was impressed by the students' work, given the demands of the competition.
"The hardest part of this engineering challenge, or anything like this, is to integrate this into a system that could pass safety tests, that could perform and be competitive to the consumers, and get great gas mileage," Chu said in a telephone interview. "If you think about undergraduates, and some master's students taking this on over a three year period, it's a staggering achievement."
Real parts, real experience
Because of their familiarity with GM, competition participants can advance quickly through the automaker's engineering ranks, Helfrich said.
"When they come into the company I can immediately apply them to our hardest problems -- the unbounded and difficult problems," Helfrich said. "And they work. It turns out that they're so successful in their early jobs that they get drafted immediately to other jobs because people see how good they are and want them to work on their projects."
Six members of the Virginia Tech team, including co-team leader Lynn Gantt, are headed to work for GM. Gantt said he's going to work at GM's Alternative Energy Center in Warren, Mich.
"The real reason behind this competition is to get students in today's college and university atmosphere to go to work in the auto industry," Gantt said.
Gantt estimated that 90 percent of the 33 members on Virginia Tech's team have engineering jobs lined up, with most in the auto industry.
Gantt, who just finished his master's degree in mechanical engineering, said his master's project focused on predicting the range of Virginia Tech's E85 fueled plug-in hybrid. He was even able to visit the EPA's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., to test the vehicle.
Chu said it was "a great thing" that the schools allowed students such as Gantt to use the competition as part of their curriculum.
"Believe me, when you're working on projects like this you learn more than you could possibly ever learn from a textbook," Chu said.
As the industry becomes more electrified, there is a growing need for engineers with electric and hybrid experience, said Martha Schanno, recruitment sales manager for SAE International.
"Across the industry, we're seeing that some companies like Ford and Chrysler… that are looking for the hybrid," Schanno said. "It's really widespread. It's not just a pocket within the three big OEs."
Plug-in hybrids claim top spots
Other teams in the EcoCAR competition were from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Georgia Tech, Michigan Tech, Mississippi State, Missouri University of Science and Technology, North Carolina State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Texas Tech, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Victoria, University of Waterloo, University of Wisconsin and West Virginia University.
Ohio State came in second and Waterloo took third.
Most teams created variants of plug-in hybrid with ethanol, biodiesel and diesel engines. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology used a fully electric engine and Waterloo and Missouri S&T each used hydrogen-powered engines.
Ohio State used an ethanol plug-in hybrid.
The students were encouraged to test and use advanced powertrains, Helfrich said.
"We want all of these teams to experiment with fairly complex, advanced, powertrains so students can learn the nuance of the integration, because that's really one of the key engineering tasks that we have to face at General Motors, and in the industry in general," he said.
Virginia Tech's vehicle was a plug-in hybrid with an E85 ethanol engine. During the competition, the vehicle averaged the equivalent of 81.9 mpg -- 70 percent over the stock vehicle, GM said.
With the EcoCAR competition over, the focus shifts to the next three-year challenge -- EcoCAR 2: Plugging into the Future.
GM will continue to support EcoCAR 2 by donating a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu to each participating team. The Department of Energy will also still sponsor the event.
Because the industry is producing smaller vehicles, EcoCAR will also move to smaller vehicles, Helfrich said.
There will be 16 teams competing in EcoCAR 2, including nine schools that participated in the original EcoCAR.
The Department of Energy has sponsored competitions like EcoCAR for 23 years. The department continues to support EcoCAR and similar events in other industries, because, as in athletic events, competition brings the best out of people, Chu said.
"This is the nerd competition that still elicits all the dedication and excitement," Chu said, "but it's toward developing a new cadre of scientists and engineers."