Behrend SAE Club enters hybrid vehicle in 36th annual Supermileage Challenge

After three years of designing and refining a belt drive vehicle for the Society of Automotive Engineers’ International Supermileage Challenge, Cody Colpo and Katie Burbules were ready for a change.

It’s not that the belt drive vehicle had been unsuccessful. On the contrary, under the design and operation of a team of engineering students, including Colpo and Burbules, the vehicle carried Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to two victories in the last three years of the competition.

But like all good engineers, including those still in training, Colpo and Burbules, then both members of Penn State Behrend’s SAE Club, kept looking for ways to improve on the product.

“A lot of the cars that compete each year have gotten similar, so we wanted to try something completely different,” said Colpo, an Evans City native who graduated from Penn State Behrend this spring with a degree in mechanical engineering. “To the best of our knowledge, no one had ever attempted a hybrid car before. It was a huge undertaking for the people on our team.”

Creating an electric transmission vehicle (hybrid) was a key accomplishment for Behrend’s SAE Club, which competed June 4-5 in the 36th annual challenge, held at Eaton Corporation’s Marshall Proving Grounds track in Michigan. Twenty-three collegiate teams entered the competition, which challenges them to create cars that squeeze the most mileage out of a single tank of high-octane gasoline.

Penn State Behrend’s team entered two vehicles this year, both a traditional belt drive vehicle and the new hybrid entry. The college’s belt drive vehicle finished in fifth place, getting 564 miles per gallon while the hybrid vehicle finished in sixth place with 479 miles per gallon.

“For the hybrid car, we knew it was so different that we really just wanted it to pass the technical inspection process and make a successful fuel economy run, which it did, so we were happy,” said Burbules, an Erie native who also graduated from the college this spring with a degree in mechanical engineering.

The hybrid vehicle did more than pass the inspection portion of the competition. It took second place in the design report part of the competition, earning $300 for the Behrend team.

Team members were satisfied with mileage the hybrid vehicle got but believe its potential is even greater. With all factors optimized, Colpo thinks it could eclipse the 1,485 and 1,290 miles per gallon that the club’s winning cars gained in the 2012 and 2013 competitions, respectively.

“The rough calculations for efficiency say it should be able to do one-and-a-half to two times as well as a belt drive vehicle,” Colpo said.

The hybrid vehicle’s potential has the SAE Club focusing on that design for future competitions.

“The other members really want to focus on troubleshooting and perfecting the hybrid design,” Burbules said. “Taking the time to fine-tune the engine will have a significant effect.”

This year marked the last International Supermileage Challenge for Colpo and Burbules, who have both accepted engineering positions at LORD Corporation. While they relish having been part of teams that took first place in two challenges, the recent graduates said creating a hybrid vehicle may be their most memorable accomplishment. It was memorable for their competitors as well.

“Throughout the competition, a lot of teams would walk by and say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s the hybrid one,’” Colpo said. “That was pretty cool. It was something new that they had never seen before.”

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Last Updated June 26, 2015