Around Town: Creating the car of the future

Michael D. Reid, Times Colonist

If Morgan McKenzie seemed a little bleary-eyed at University of Victoria’s Green Garage the other day, at least he had a good excuse.

The fourth-year software engineering student had been up until 4 a.m. for the second night in a row, his exhaustion tempered by relief he was on the home stretch after a long, rewarding journey.

“We’re looking forward to being able to show off what we’ve accomplished, and actually being able to get some sleep again,” smiled McKenzie, 23, one of nearly 50 UVic students in computer and mechanical engineering and business who have spent three years re-designing and optimizing a 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco donated by General Motors.

They’ve been kept busy creating a car of the future for the 26th annual Advanced Vehicle Technology competition.

UVic was one of only two Canadian universities invited to participate in the elite competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, GM and the Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources.

Their mission, which team adviser and mechanical engineering department chair Dr. Zuomin Dong says they chose to accept with enthusiasm and ingenuity, was to improve the white sedan’s fuel efficiency and reduce its emissions while retaining its consumer appeal and high performance as a green, hybrid-electric model to be showcased during EcoCar2: Plugging into the Future.

It’s a win-win undertaking, said GM mentor Amanda Kalhous, noting while students develop their engineering skills, the automaker benefits by recruiting top engineering talent.

“It’s very advanced, next-generation powertrain technology we have here,” explained Dong. “We want to push the boundaries. You can harvest green power, renewable resources.”

McKenzie, who designed the vehicle’s sophisticated infotainment system, and his colleagues enthusiastically fielded questions from faculty, dignitaries including Victoria Coun. Marianne Alto and Victoria MP Murray Rankin and others. The colour of the team’s bright yellow polo shirts reflected their sunny disposition during a show-and-tell at the engineering garage and testing facility.

“I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to work with such a highly-motivated and talented group,” said Dong, whose Outstanding Adviser award he received from the National Science Foundation in 2010 dominates a cabinet loaded with other awards his team has received. “You just have to give them the opportunity to recognize a challenge and they motivate themselves.”

Several local sponsors such as Prototype Equipment Design, the Victoria machine shop that made components including pulleys, a battery-surround and rear suspension elements, got on board.

“They provide the raw materials and we cut them into useable parts,” explained longtime employee Kory Pollner.

“[Owner] Ray Brougham was a student at UVic and he likes to support engineering programs. If we sponsor engineering students, it can translate to work and opportunities down the road.”

Rankin said he didn’t just learn about auto mechanics and electric drivetrain architecture when he dropped by to wish them well before they head to Michigan for the competition.

“What I’ve learned is that this isn’t simply a UVic project, amazing though it is,” he said. “It’s also a collaboration with local firms that have contributed. So it’s in many ways a Victoria success story.”

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