Ethanol, electric power behind winners of DOE EcoCAR challenge

By Holly Jessen | June 17, 2011

The winners of the recently completed three-year EcoCAR challenge used a combination of extended-range electric power and E85 to grab top honors. Taking first place was Virginia Tech University, followed by Ohio State University in the No. 2 spot.

Virginia Tech’s vehicle, a crossover sport utility vehicle, achieved an equivalent of 82 miles per gallon, a nearly 70 percent increase in fuel economy over the stock vehicle, said Lynn Gantt, a team leader with the Virginia Tech team. The vehicle travels the first 54 miles driven powered by an electric motor with a battery system, at which point the vehicle switches to a conventional four-speed automatic transmission flex-fuel engine. “Because of that it significantly reduces the petroleum energy used,” Gantt said.

A total of 15 teams competed in the EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge competition, which is sponsored by the U.S. DOE and General Motors. The schools worked three years to re-engineer a vehicle donated by GM. The goal was to reduce fuel consumption and emissions while maintaining utility, safety and performance.

The drive behind the competition is working with and mentoring student engineers, said Kent Helfrich, GM executive director for electronic controls and software. GM’s take away for sponsoring the competition is the ability to meet and hire some of the brightest students. For the students, it’s a career accelerator. “I can’t say how much this program gives them a leg up on the rest of their career,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu also talked about how the competition helps train the next generation of U.S. auto industry workers. “With the experience and skills these innovative students have gained through the EcoCAR competition, they will help reduce our nation’s reliance on oil imports and keep U.S. industries competitive in the global marketplace,” he said. He went on to congratulate all the teams that participated in the competition. “I was very impressed with all the work that all of you have done.”

The third place winner was a team from the University of Waterloo. That group entered a hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. For more information about EcoCAR, check out