Car fanatic or not, few 20-year-olds can knowledgeably discuss the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cells, ultracapacitors, and batteries for automotive energy storage—perhaps even fewer in scorching desert heat.
The scene was General Motors' Mesa Proving Grounds in Arizona. It is one of GM's two main North American test facilities, with 75 miles (121 kilometers [km]) of roads and a high-speed test track over 5000 acres (20 km2). The heat—up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius)—makes it ideal for testing vehicles and their air-conditioning under intense conditions. Half a century ago, the area was empty and remote, visited only by a few cattle. Now, this top-secret facility is rapidly being engulfed by hundreds of beige stucco houses in walled subdivisions.
The event was the second-year finals of the three-year Challenge X competition among teams from 17 North American universities. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, GM, and several equipment manufacturers, it's the latest in a series of university auto-design contests that date back to 1987.
Talking to dozens of young engineers in the competition was both impressive and informative. All were members of university teams who designed and built passenger vehicles using advanced powertrain technology to reduce fuel usage and emissions. The project vehicles had been lovingly crafted by electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering students and computer scientists, supplemented by the odd nuclear or industrial engineer.
The actual car? Oh, that's not till Year Two.
Challenge X regalia was painted on the vehicles, printed on everything, even worn by the participants. No word on tattoos, though.
Challenge X follows a real-world corporate vehicle design process—in this case, GM's—over three full years. The students' first year was largely devoted to computer modeling, simulation, and design testing. Only then was each team given a 2005 Chevrolet Equinox, which in the U.S. is a ”compact” sport-utility—4.8 meters long, weighing 1724 kilograms (kg) with all-wheel-drive—fitted with a 185-horsepower (138 kilowatt [kW]), 3.4-liter V6 gasoline engine. Teams also got access to engines, battery packs, motors, electronic controllers, software, and other equipment from 28 corporate sponsors.
Year Two was all about implementation: Students had to turn their design files into a modified, running vehicle, which was trucked to the Desert Proving Grounds in May and put through an exhaustive series of tests. The driving event for invited press closed the second year of the competition, after prizes were awarded for overall scoring on a variety of factors—everything from emissions, fuel consumption, and on-road performance to technical writing, electronic control strategy, and community outreach.
During the third year, teams will refine their vehicles to provide a ”showroom” auto that meets consumer requirements—a new and challenging element in such competitions. This may include the ability to tow a trailer weighing 453 kg (1000 pounds) or more up a 5 percent grade for many miles in 110 degree F (43 degrees C) heat, or instant starting in temperatures well below 0 degree F (-18 degrees C). It means air-conditioning that works flawlessly, comfortable seats, the storage space that buyers expect in an SUV—and enough acceleration to merge comfortably into freeway traffic with a full load of people and luggage while towing that same trailer.