Inside GM's Scouting Grounds: The EcoCAR Challenge

The government-sponsored competition to build the best ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles yields both automotive innovation and the next generation of car designers.

EcoCAR Challenge

The EcoCAR Challenge, a three-year advanced vehicle technology engineering competition, is ostensibly a chance for university students to design ultra-fuel-efficient, low-emissions, high-performing vehicles with 300 miles of range. But the DOE, GM, and Argonne National Lab-sponsored challenge, which ends this week, is much more than that—it's also a proving ground for future vehicle engineers and a place for GM to handpick its next stars.

The winning teams get $100,000 and "serious bragging rights," according to Cindy Svestka, the EcoCAR Team Leader Liaison at GM. But a full-time job is the real reward. "Getting these students to work with GM is our priority," says Svestka. Over the past five years, GM has directly hired over 70 students from the EcoCAR competition (and its predecessor). Approximately 98% of students that come out of the program have a job offer before graduation.

Even Svestka has roots in the competition—she was a student in the Propane Vehicle Challenge before getting hired by Argonne and eventually moving on to GM.

In the first year of the EcoCAR Challenge, students focus on the design process. Years two and three are spent turning the design into an actual car. The DOE runs the challenge every three years, but each cycle has a different name (the last cycle was called Challenge X) and specific requirements.

Last week, the EcoCAR teams—including Texas Technical University, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Waterloo, and Virginia Tech—tested their vehicles on GM's proving grounds in Detroit, and this week, the budding engineers are in Washington, D.C. awaiting the announcement of the winner. The teams will be judged on a number of factors, including safety, braking, acceleration, emissions, and consumer acceptability.

This year's competitors focused primarily on hybrid and plug-in technology. Virginia Tech, for example, built an extended range electric vehicle—much like GM's Chevy Volt. That's because the competition isn't meant for students to build futuristic cars that have no place in today's production facilities; the point is to train the next generation of engineers to build consumer-ready cars. "[The competition] is a look at what the industry is doing as far as what regulations might be, where new technology is headed," says Svestka. "It's important that new engineers understand these technologies and the pressures on the industry."

So where are the Virginia Tech team members—part of one of the top teams in this year's competition—heading after graduation? One team leader is going to Argonne, the other is headed to GM, and a handful are starting manufacturing jobs. "Most wound up finding jobs in the end," says team leader Patrick Walsh.

Update: Virginia Tech won this year's competition.

[Image by Flickr user AVTC]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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