The Washington Times - May 22, 2008, 10:28AM

Maybe It’s Not Too Late Just when I’m about to give up on today’s college students, some of them come along and prove that their interests lean toward something other than law school or getting an MBA in marketing. Frankly, we don’t need anywhere near the number of lawyers we graduate each year and an MBA in marketing is, well, little more than a training course in spin-doctoring. What we need are people who are trained to actually produce something - to figure out how to solve problems and create something useful for you and me without destroying the environment in the process. Enter Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility. You’ve probably never heard of this program, but it’s now in its fourth year and I got to see its results firsthand in the form of 17 running, manufacturable vehicles. Challenge X is a multi-year engineering competition between 17 university teams from across North America. Each team was initially provided with a new GM Equinox SUV and given the task to design and build an alternative drivetrain that would increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact. The student teams were allowed to use a range of hybrid, plug-in, fuel cell or alternative fuel systems to achieve the highest mileage and lowest emissions while maintaining reasonable reliability. In other words, they had to re-engineer the vehicles into advanced technology that could be produced in the marketplace. 


All 17 re-engineered Equinox’s drove from New York to the Energy Department headquarters here in DC and I had a chance to talk with student engineers during the press event that accompanied the awards ceremony for the highest scoring teams. The winning Mississippi State team designed a through-the-road parallel hybrid electric vehicle powered by a 1.9L GM direct injection turbo diesel engine fueled by bio diesel (B20). It achieved a 38 percent increase in fuel economy over the production vehicle on a modified urban test cycle. The second place vehicle, engineered by students at the University of Wisconsin is a through-the-road parallel hybrid electric vehicle with a 1.9L GM direct injection turbo diesel engine fueled by B20. Ohio State University was awarded third place for its power-split hybrid electric vehicle powered by a 1.9L GM direct injection turbo diesel engine and fueled by B20. Twelve of the teams used biodiesel (B20) fueled systems, but a few used other clever approaches. UC Davis used a plug-in hybrid source; the University of Waterloo used a hydrogen fuel cell and three teams (Penn State, Texas Tech and Univ. of Tulsa) used hydrogen as a supplementary propulsion source. Five teams used belt alternator/starter technology and two (West Virginia and Univ. of Akron) used ultracapacitors to provide high levels of power for short periods. Pretty cool ideas. By participating in the Challenge X program, the students gained real-world engineering skills and hands-on learning that will lay the foundation for them to embark on a career in automotive engineering with a competitive advantage. Since the competition began in 2004, program sponsors have hired dozens of Challenge X students to join their organizations. What all this means is that these kids are sharp, motivated and poised to help make a difference in what’s certain to be a challenging future. I wish I’d had an opportunity like this when I was in engineering school.