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Jun 172011

Green Right Now Reports

Want to know what tomorrow’s automobile engineers have been up to?

Virginia Tech's winning car.

They’ve been designing cars that get gas mileage or gas mileage “equivalents” that raise the bar for vehicles not just in America, but worldwide.

Take a look at the winning vehicle in the EcoCAR Challenge competition for college students, which wrapped up today.

The re-imagined crossover SUV – remade as an electric vehicle with a supplemental gasoline engine — charted an amazing 82 miles per gallon. (That’s an “equivalent miles per gallon” figure, because the HEVT car runs part-time on electricity.)

The key to the car’s success, said team leader Lynn Gantt, who just graduated from Virginia Tech, was that it could go 54 miles on the road on electric power before dipping into the ethanol powered engine. After that, the car can run on the “flex engine” on either E85 or gasoline, Gantt said, explaining that trips from Virginia Tech to Washington D.C. had confirmed that the car performed well while getting mileage that represents a 70 percent improvement over the stock vehicle.

“We’ve road-tested this car. It’s very reliable,” he said.

General Motors, sponsors the EcoCAR competition with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The student-developed car may actually best GM’s car of the year, the plug-in electric/hybrid Volt, which gets a combined electricity/gasoline gas mileage rating of 36 miles per gallon from the EPA . Though the Volt’s energy profile is more complicated, because if one drives the VOLT only short distances (under around 40 miles) before recharging, the car can get up to 93 miles per gallon running on electricity only. (To try to figure all that out, you can visit fueleconomy.gov.)

Not that the student cars are intended as pre-production vehicles. The EcoCAR competition is more focused on pushing the envelope to achieve certain learnings and on encouraging innovative thinking.

That innovation will be critical for the U.S. to stay on top of its game, said DOE Secretary Steven Chu, speaking at a news conference Friday.

There’s growing demand for eco-friendly cars, Chu said, “and we are in a global race to produce them.”

The EcoCAR challenge asks college students to build cars that minimize fuel and emissions while retaining their consumer appeal. The teams get $10,000 in seed money and a donated car and components from GM.

Teams from 15 universities competed in the three-year contest, which is the most recent phase of an ongoing 19-year DOE program challenging students to come up with “advanced vehicles”.

The winners were announced Thursday:

Virginia Tech’s team of 34 undergraduates and 6 graduate students took top honors with its HEVT (Hybrid Electric vehicle), a completely reworked 2009 Saturn VUE that ran on electric battery power and E85 ethanol.

(To see the HEVT VT-REX, as the VA Tech team dubbed its car, visit Eco-Car website.)

Ohio State University’s team took second place, also with an E85 EREV.

The University of Waterloo took third place with a hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric vehicle – the first in the history of the Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions to run a fuel cell vehicle in all the dynamic events during the final road tests and competitions.

The competition culminated this month in a series of tests of the cars at the GM Milford Proving Grounds, where the cars’ performance, safety and fuel efficiencies were tested.

Secretary Chu noted Friday that although some of the vehicles used ethanol, many companies are developing alternative gasoline additives from wood waste, microorganisms, switchgrass and a variety of non-food sources. So such cars wouldn’t necessarily rely upon biofuels made from corn in the future.

In addition to discovering new automotive tricks, the competition grooms aspiring  engineers for jobs in the auto industry.

”We want all of them to go into the auto industry, said GM Vice President Ken Halford at the news conference. “We’ll get as many as we can into GM.