Kids, Cars and Designing For the Future TODAY: The EcoCAR 2 Challenge


Is your kid a budding engineer or car designer want to be? Does she now or did he then spend hours with legos, robotic sets, racing tracks, matchbox cars and Thomas the Train – playing, creating, designing and pretending? Is your child perhaps in high school, soon to be heading to college, and considering engineering, marketing or design as a possible major? Grab the kids in your life (young or old) and join me and as I sit down with some real live cars of the future experts that have some ideas for that career for today!

Patrick Walsh is an Advanced Vehicle Testing and Controls Engineer at

Photo Credit: EcoCAR 2, Patrick Walsh, 2011

Argonne National Laboratory and a key organizer for EcoCAR. Worth mentioning too is that Patrick is a member of last year’s EcoCAR Challenge winning team! Kimberly DeClark is the Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions Communications and Logistics Manager at Argonne National Laboratory – a good person to make the ideas and technical nature of the challenge easy for all to understand. Argonne, which Patrick and Kimberly work for, along with General Motors and the US Department of Energy are providing the software, hardware, logistical support, advice and of course the cash (upwards of $745 million) to the student teams in the EcoCAR 2 challenge; a challenge that spans a 3 year competition period.

The Eco Car 2 Challenge tagline is: “Plugging into the future” and in my opinion the competition is every little boy or girl’s (and some “big boys and big girls”) dream come true. This dream is now a reality for teams of students at 15 North American universities who are currently completing their first year of this 3-year quest: enhance and adapt a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu – donated by General Motors – and make it MORE energy-efficient then it already is (according to the Chevy Malibu website, the car already gets 27 MPG city and 37 MPG highway.) This feat comes with the challenge of not only increasing energy efficiency but also reducing the vehicle’s greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum consumption, while maintaining performance safety and of course the Chevy “cool” factor. During the first year of competition, the teams decide on a design and create a computer simulation of this Chevy Malibu, car of the future. Year one is now coming to a close, and teams are presenting their work and ideas May 18-23rd in Los Angeles.

As Kimberly explained to me, the EcoCAR 2 program actually builds on a 24 year Department of Energy (DOE) history of competitions which have all been working to create innovative more fuel efficient vehicles that look to reduce wells-to-wheels greenhouse gas emissions, as well as “tailpipe emissions” while at the same time ensuring safety and maintaining performance – no easy task even for a “seasoned” engineer.

Patrick told me that since the start of the competition in 1989, a goal of the Department of Energy has been the reduction of petroleum use, and that at various times along the way this has taken different routes, with students using cutting edge technology of the time; and today this revolves around hybrid plug-in vehicle technology. The competition’s “wells to wheels” goal of greenhouse gas reduction is important because when we “plug in” the team also needs to consider where the electricity power that is replacing the gasoline comes from. If this electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, the car still may produce as much or more greenhouse gas emissions then it did when it ran on oil and gas! At ClimateMama we are pleased to see so much effort and innovation targeted at vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists tell us are a prime driver of human caused climate change.

I asked Patrick directly how open the auto industry is to all these new ideas. He told me companies like GM are very open to these ideas and that these goals are important components of the company’s real-world Vehicle Development Process (VDP). This seems evident by the money, staff and resources both industry and government are putting into this competition! According to Patrick, new technologies to create more sustainable modes of transportation are at the very heart of this program. While we at ClimateMama hold out hope for that “silver bullet,” a car that runs on water or air, Patrick explained that we are not “quite there yet” and that students are more realistic. This competition is about progression, and students, government and industry see the end product being a continued investment in human capital: engineers and students that can “think outside the box” and come up with exciting ideas, that can work with and build on real world technologies.

While EcoCAR 2 is primarily an engineering challenge, Kimberly made a point to explain that it is also a marketing, business and public relations challenge too. Teams include business students as part of the “challenge” who are required to do community outreach and education. Teams develop marketing plans and outreach materials that explain how and why fuel efficiency and hybrid technologies are important for our environment, our health and our economy.

EcoCAR 2 teams get invited and seek opportunities to reach out to local communities. They regularly meet with all kinds of students and youth groups, boys and girls clubs, scouting groups, middle and high

Photo Credit: EcoCAR 2

Photo Credit: EcoCAR 2, Middle School Outreach

school students and a broad range of community groups to whom they explain not only the program but the challenges involved. Check out the 15 teams in the EcoCAR 2 challenge and find out if there is a team at a college near you. Consider reaching out to the Team directly, or to the EcoCAR 2 staff. Kimberly assures me that they all welcome the opportunity for community interaction, which is after all, part of the program! Not only is the competition creating better, real world ideas for vehicles, but it is also training students to be ready for real world experiences as part of a design, engineering and marketing team.

My final question to Patrick, “Why can’t we color tailpipe emissions pink” so that people can see what comes out of vehicles, and might then be more anxious and insistent that the auto industry and government work harder to reduce these greenhouse gas emissions. ” While Patrick didn’t have an answer to my question, he didn’t discount the idea outright either! He did tell me that lowering emissions for vehicles, with the understanding that this could help fight climate change and air pollution were certainly goals of the challenge.

As President Kennedy said back in the early 1960’s: “We choose to go to the moon, the moon in this decade, not because it is easy but because it is hard, because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one the we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

The EcoCAR2 challenge gives me hope for a better “tomorrow’ based on a challenge we intend to win. I have hope that our children’s future will be one where we will have climate change under control, where their jobs will and are being created in a “green economy” which will grow through partnerships built on dreams of a clean renewable energy future. I hope that “the best of our energies and skills” are harnessed, incubated and hatched by challenges like EcoCAR2, where industry and government work together.

Climate Change is colorblind, it isn’t red, pink, fuchsia or blue and it should NOT be partisan. Challenges like EcoCAR2 that work to build a new “green economy,” that has the added benefit of lowering health care costs and reducing illnesses because of pollution free cars with no tailpipe emissions which use renewable fuels and rechargeable batteries that are “ plugged in” to power plants that are greenhouse gas free, are hopeful dreams of how we and our children CAN begin to “plug into” a future that benefits all of us, planet included!

We would love to hear your ideas and those of the kids in your life on how we can all “plug in” to the future – now!


Climate Mama

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