Hugo Provencher, Lesley McLelland, Gavin Clark, Samantha Hazell
Hugo Provencher, Lesley McLelland, Gavin Clark, Samantha Hazell. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

Oshawa, Ontario – The clock is ticking on the EcoCAR Challenge. Later this month, sixteen student teams from across Canada and the United States will take high-tech vehicles they have designed, engineered and built over the last three years to a central location for testing. In June, they’ll know the results of their labour as the winners are named in this prestigious contest.

The three Canadian teams are from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and the team I visited, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ontario.

The EcoCAR Challenge is the latest in a series of competitions that dates back more than twenty years. It’s produced by the U.S. Department of Energy with the help of numerous sponsors, including General Motors, Natural Resources Canada and Transport Canada. It requires students to create vehicles that use advanced propulsion methods, but it isn’t just a test to see who can drive the longest on the least amount of fuel. Unlike mileage marathons where vehicles usually hold one person and look futuristic, EcoCAR entries must be acceptable to today’s consumers. They must look like showroom vehicles, be viable for everyday use, and carry at least four passengers and cargo. The teams follow similar steps to what automakers use when designing, engineering and building vehicles. To gain points that go toward the final tally, the students must even “advertise” their vehicles through web sites and presentations.

General Motors supplies the vehicles, which the students strip down and then fit with their propulsion systems. As do many of the other project sponsors, the automaker looks on the competition as a “farm team,” keeping tabs on how the students are doing and, in some cases, hiring them once they graduate. Samantha Hazell, 22, was a graduating engineering student and part of the UOIT team as of last week. This week, she has started her new job working with hybrid controls at General Motors.

Each of the teams in the competition chooses the powertrain it wants to put into the vehicle. All of the sixteen teams are using electric motors as part of the drive-trains, but UOIT is the only one running solely on battery power. (The University of Victoria is building an extended-range vehicle, while the University of Waterloo is using a hydrogen fuel cell.)

The team chose electricity because it’s generally a “greener” energy source in Canada, according to UOIT team leader Gavin Clark, 24. The competition looks at greenhouse gas emissions from “well to wheel,” considering emissions at the source of the energy as well as once it’s in the vehicle. “We use more hydroelectric, nuclear, solar and wind,” Clark said. “There’s an energy map that they use for the competition for all of North America that levels the playing field for all the competition. If we were to look at the energy just in Canada, we would be more efficient than the competition standards because the competition looks at the U.S. electricity (as well), which is a lot dirtier than Canadian electricity.”

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