EcoCar2: Plugging into the future

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has given students from 15 universities across North America, including Purdue, the chance to show what they can do in the field of automotive technology that looks to reduce greenhouse emissions and improve fuel efficiency.

The goal is to push the envelope of transportation and train young engineers. Entry criteria were simple: Build a highly efficient plug-in hybrid vehicle and use renewable energy sources.

The three-year competition, which began in 2011, is divided into phases that focus on design, construction and refinement. The competition challenges the teams to convert a Chevrolet Malibu to reduce its environmental impact without compromising performance, safety and consumer acceptability.

Each team designed its own drivetrain, which will eventually propel a real 2013 Chevrolet Malibu — provided courtesy of GM, one of the competition's primary sponsors. The winner gets to keep their Malibu and also receives various cash prizes from industry sponsors.

Purdue's team is using Parallel through the Road (PTTR) architecture with its vehicle, which uses electrical energy to power an electric motor on one axle, while an engine drives another axle.

The PTTR architecture is a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle, which uses an onboard battery to reduce fuel use and can be recharged using a standard wall outlet. Once the plug-in range of the battery is depleted, the vehicle can still operate as a regular hybrid. Purdue will use B20 fuel, which is a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel, to extend the range of the vehicles.

Vahid Motevalli, department head and professor of mechanical engineering technology, is the lead faculty advisor for the Purdue team. Others involved with the project include Gregory Shaver, associate professor of mechanical engineering, leading engine control and overall mechanical systems; Oleg Wasynczuk, professor of electrical and computer engineering, advising the team on power electronics and the electric motor and controller; Haiyan (Henry) H. Zhang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology, who is overseeing the modeling and simulation and work on the vehicle's transmission; Peter Meckl, professor of mechanical engineering, overseeing work in powertrain controls and diagnostics; and Eric Dietz, associate professor of computer and information technology, leading work on batteries and computer and information systems. Purdue's team, composed of more than 50 undergraduate and graduate students, received its car in June and has been testing and troubleshooting its design.

"We are looking at an approach that is unique because of components selected and the integration of them," says Haley Moore, a graduate student in mechanical engineering technology who serves as project manager. "Some things have been done and some tools have been used, but the way all the components work together is different than what has been seen before."

Each team has created a booth, which must include a driving simulator, powered by a control box that has been developed over the past year.

"The simulator is realistic in the sense that we're programming a control box that will go into a vehicle," Motevalli says. "You don't have to take the risks of actually driving a test car. You're driving a simulator. Once all of the bugs are out, you can take the control box and put it into the car."

The program has benefited participants greatly, Meckl says. "It's been demonstrated that people who have worked on the EcoCAR projects have 100 percent job placement. Putting this on their resume not only gives the students more confidence, but they can demonstrate that they've been involved with an actual car and use the exact protocols used at GM to put a car together."

During phase two, the team will work on fabrication, phase three will deal with refinement.

In addition to the vehicle, the team received $25,000 in seed money to help start the project. The colleges of Technology and Engineering have committed to three years' worth of funding for the team.