Technology steers Penn State's EcoCAR team to victory

Recently, Penn State welcomed the Advanced Vehicle Team back from California after winning first place in year two of the EcoCAR 2 competition. Fueling their efforts was a blend of hard work, team spirit and the latest in computer and engineering technologies.

Launched in 2011, the EcoCAR 2 is a three-year engineering competition that challenges 15 North American collegiate teams to convert a standard 2013 Chevrolet Malibu into a highly efficient hybrid. Sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy, the competition aims to explore solutions that will minimize energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all while maintaining performance, utility and safety.

“Everything we do relies on cutting-edge technology,” said Gary Neal, department head with the Applied Research Laboratory and an adjunct professor in the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering department, who is one of the team’s faculty advisers. “It plays a huge role in the program. Whether it’s the complex computer programs we use or the online discussion boards, technology is key.”

During the first year of the competition, which started in 2011, the team used various computer technologies to design their car’s power train and electrical, mechanical and software systems. These programs, which include Siemens NX, a 3-D CAD program and a MathWorks software called Matlab and Simulink, ensured that the various components of each system would fit inside the car while functioning properly. They also virtually tested the vehicle’s performance.

For example, in the first EcoCAR competition, the team discovered that if the car bottomed out, the rear suspension would come up through the car and destroy its extremely expensive lithium-ion battery. Discovering this via computer simulation, prompted them to resolve the error before it had a chance to become a problem in reality.

“Using these computer programs helped us pinpoint problems in the design that we may not have noticed otherwise,” said Donald Hoover, EcoCAR and Penn State engineering alum. “These are the types of things you don’t want to overlook and then find out the hard way.”

At the onset of the second year of the competition (following last year's planning phase), the team received their designated GM-donated Malibu and removed the stock parts to make room for the installation of hybrid technologies. Taylor Kidd, communications manager for the team, said this phase was one of the most exciting in the competition.

“This was a very fun, hands-on year because we were actually in the garage manufacturing parts and implementing them into the vehicle,” Kidd said. “The goal of this year was to get the car running as a hybrid.”

Kidd went on to describe the progress and evolution of the team's effort throughout the year.

“The team completely removed and replaced the power train, which includes the engine, transmission and drive shafts,” she said. “Also, to make it hybrid-electric, we added a battery pack, which is located in the trunk. Additionally, we used a dynamometer to measure the power of the engine.”

Just as vital to the project is the technology teammates used to communicate with one another and stay organized. The EcoCAR 2 team worked extensively with Microsoft SharePoint to host different discussions and store documents, which allows the entire team to collaborate on different topics.

“We were able to keep track of thousands of little things that have the potential to get lost in the cracks from year to year of the competition as students graduate and new ones join the team,” Kidd said.

The Microsoft SharePoint forum was also used to help coordinate when each respective group worked on the car. With busy and differing schedules, it was important for the team to have a system in place to avoid scheduling conflicts.

“The forum was a really useful scheduling tool,” said Hoover. “It was nice to be able to say, for example, ‘Our group is taking the car next Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.,’ and have everyone know.”

Rounding out each year of the EcoCAR competition, the teams meet for a weeklong event to demonstrate how their car meets or exceeds that year’s goal. This year, the 13 members of the team were on the road May 13 to 23, first in Yuma, Ariz., before they moved on to the second round in San Diego, Calif.

The Penn State team took top honors in the overall competition, including wins in individual tests such as fastest autocross time, best communications plan, best acceleration, best braking and best dynamic consumer acceptability.

To learn more about the EcoCAR 2 competition, visit http://www.hev.psu.edu. For more IT news at Penn State, go to http://current.it.psu.edu/.

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Last Updated June 19, 2013