University of Waterloo's entry in The EcoCAR Challenge
University of Waterloo’s entry in The EcoCAR Challenge. Click image to enlarge

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By Jil McIntosh; photos courtesy of the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team

Waterloo, Ontario – You might expect that most automotive technology comes – well, from the automakers. But at universities across North America, including three in Canada, teams of students are working to develop alternative fuel vehicles that may one day be as common as gasoline-powered versions are today.

It’s all part of the EcoCAR Challenge, a three-year advanced technology engineering program developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, General Motors and Argonne National Laboratory. The Canadian federal government also provides sponsorship through Transport Canada and Natural Resources Canada. It’s an ongoing project: more than 21 competitions have taken place over 17 years, and the EcoCAR Challenge has grown out of the Challenge X competition, won by Mississippi State in 2007. For the EcoCAR Challenge, the Canadian teams are the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario; the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario; and the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C.

The three-year program is broken up by years, with the first dedicated to settling on a drivetrain, using the same software GM does to create computer models and simulations to determine what will fit into the vehicle and how it will function. Once the design is finished, the student teams receive donated SUVs, which they must turn into working alternative-powertrain vehicles over the next two years.

Fuel efficiency challenges are common enough, but most of them involve vehicles with unusual designs and compromised seating to make them as light and aerodynamic as possible. The EcoCAR Challenge is different in that the vehicle must be commercially viable. It must look, feel and perform like a regular vehicle, enough that people might want to buy it.

The team's design for the car
The team’s design for the car. Click image to enlarge

“We’re trying to improve the consumer acceptability, performance, emissions and environmental performance,” said Michael Giannikouris, team captain of the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT). “Consumer acceptability is graded at the competition. We lost our rear seats entirely because we initially chose to put our electric motor under it, but losing your rear seat isn’t good for that. We’re trying to overcome that.”

UWAFT is building a Saturn Vue into a fuel cell plug-in hydrogen hybrid electric vehicle. It can be plugged in to charge its battery, which will then feed the stored charge to the electric motor. Once that runs out, in approximately 50 kilometres, the hydrogen fuel cell starts up and produces electricity to power the car. The team went with hydrogen after working with the fuel in Challenge X.

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