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Electric Truck Builders Hope to Zap Competition

Electric Truck Builders Hope to Zap Competition

by Rachel Jackson

Staff Writer, The Diamondback

Reprinted from the April 2, 2003 Diamondback

A group of anxious student engineers are eyeing the finish line in an automotive competition that will be won by more than speed alone.

Led by Gregory Herwig and Sarabpreet Bumra, both senior mechanical engineering majors, about 50 students are nearing completion of a massive project to re-engineer a full-size 2002 Ford Explorer into a cleaner hybrid electric vehicle that requires less fossil fuel, but still functions as a powerful sport utility vehicle.

Fifteen to 20 of the students, who participate in the project as university coursework, will travel to Michigan in June with the Explorer hauled on a roll-back truck, where they hope their fuel-efficient, smooth-running masterpiece will outperform 14 modified Explorers entered by other schools.

Herwig is confident in the team's submission.

"We'll be in the top three this year again," he predicted. "Certainly in the top five."

Last year, the university team placed eighth, but over the past 15 years the university has participated in automotive engineering competitions, the Terrapin team has usually ranked near the top, placing first and third in recent years.

"This is our NCAA tournament for engineers," said David Holloway, the group's faculty sponsor. "You want to be in the Final Four if you can every year."

Given the popularity of SUVs, the mission of the competition is to make the vehicles, which have always required more fuel than their small-car counterparts, more efficient. The competition is primarily sponsored by the Department of Energy and Ford Motor Company.

Hybrid cars, self-charging cars that alternate between electric and gasoline power, can achieve a fuel economy near 60 miles per gallon, while the most efficient SUVs peak at about 30 miles per gallon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The FutureTruck competition is an attempt to put industry, government and academic heads together to bring the technology of the small hybrid car to the trendy SUV American consumers demand.

To prove itself, a FutureTruck entry must past emissions tests, navigate an off-road course complete with a sand bed and a steep, wet boulder hill and demonstrate at least a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy. Herwig and Holloway said they will increase it by at least that much, and possibly up to 50 percent.

Since fall 2001 the group has labored on the car, which it dubbed the "Excite," a name combining "Explorer" and "Insight" because the electric motor being used is from a Honda Insight. The car, an automotive smorgasbord with a Japanese electric motor, battery packs from Toyota Priuses and an engine from a Lincoln LS sedan, runs on an ethanol-based fuel.

Ethanol, a cleaner-burning, renewable fuel created domestically by fermenting sugars from farm waste like corn stalks and husks, is already blended into more than 10 percent of the gas sold in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. However, it is not yet cost-effective enough to replace traditional gasoline.

Herwig attributed last year's disappointing finish to a problem with fuel delivery, but said they used what they learned from last year's mistakes to design a better vehicle.

Holloway has been working on solar and electric car projects since 1982. He said the team's hybrid vehicle will perform better than the stock Explorer.

"It will accelerate faster," he said, "It will turn itself off at a stop light so you're not emitting gas. When you're going down a hill, regenerative breaking captures kinetic energy of the vehicle. It's got a lot of nice features to it."

As the technology is refined, hybrid cars are becoming more and more common. Holloway said Toyota has pledged that by 2010 all of its vehicles will be hybrids.

"Hybrid electric vehicles are here to stay," Holloway said.

April 2, 2003

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