Through a partnership formed between the Department of Energy (DOE) and a large automobile manufacturers consortium, undergraduate engineers at Cornell and other universities are accelerating the introduction of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) to the market.
About 30 undergraduates in the School of Engineering worked for the past two years on the Future Truck competition project, funded primarily by General Motors corp. (G.M.).
The University of California-Davis won the competition while Cornell University Hybrid Electric Vehicle's (CUHEV) team won first place in the prestigious greenhouse gas emission standard category held at G.M.'s "proving grounds" of Milford, Mich., and scored fifth overall in a group of fifteen other American engineering schools.
"We believe the HEV competition is the best way to produce a cadre of engineers who are familiar with efficient fuel technologies, emissions standards and environmental standards," said Rogelio Sullivan, a spokesperson for the DOE.
Judges evaluated the on-road fuel economy, off-road handling and towing capabilities, as well as the general marketability of each project.
"One of the main reasons we won the award for green house gas reduction was our use of ethanol," said Jonathan Schoenberg '03, the upcoming CUHEV team leader.
While the CUHEV team exploited ethanol, which is a clean-burning, alternative fuel derived from corn, other schools focused on reducing the weight of their vehicles or improving their fuel efficiency. The University of Wisconsin-Madison's team brought GM's Suburban's fuel efficiency up from 14 miles per gallon (mpg) to 28 mpg.
These advancements translate into enormous savings for drivers and also significantly reduces the amount of gasoline consumed across the country, according to Sullivan.
"A 20 percent improvement in the fuel efficiency of sports utility vehicles getting 15 mpg will save more fuel overall than a compact car getting 25 mpg," Sullivan said.
"The point of driving a hybrid Suburban is that [it is] better for the environment and the pocketbook in the long run," said Christopher Nitta, the HEV team leader at the U.C.-Davis. "By adding batteries and electric motors, there is also more opportunity for big manufacturers to make money."
One argument against the immediate introduction of HEVs on the market is the possible destabilization of the nation's gasoline-based infrastructure, according to Blake Koelmel '04, CUHEV team member.
"If we're going to go electric, our huge fossil-fuel infrastructure has to be phased out slowly," Koelmel said.
Current HEV models, such as Honda's Insight and Toyota's Prius, have been available in showrooms in Japan and the United States since 1997. The popularity of SUVs and their image as gas-guzzlers drives the Future Truck project and its hopes of drawing more attention to HEV technology.
"There are a lot of politics involved in the whole thing. Any company could come up with the technology in about a year if someone's breathing down their necks," said Prof. John Callister, mechanical engineering, CUHEV faculty sponsor.
"The HEV team here definitely does a lot of work a research team would not do in nine months," he added.
According to A. J. Howard '02, last year's CUHEV team leader, "As an undergraduate researcher, I have the ability to try out creative ideas more easily than researchers in the automotive industry."
Archived article by Dan Webb