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It’s been awhile, I know, but trust me, the Milwaukee School of Engineering Supermileage Vehicle team has not been sitting idle.  The team members have been working like maniacs to make sure their car is in great shape for the competition on June 10 and 11.

The carbon fiber body was completed a few weeks ago, but are you curious to find out how exactly those engineers made it happen?  Take a look at this video to watch how they did it!

The body is now fully assembled and the car is running.  Last weekend, the team spent a rainy Saturday in the rain testing the vehicle.  They put about fifteen (wet) miles on the car – talk about dedication!  While the testing team was outside, the rest of the crew was working on the electronic fuel injection (EFI) engine.

Testing

Testing

Testing

This week, the team is putting on the top of the car and will begin testing with the entire car.  After putting at least 30 more miles on the vehicle, the team will begin the final preparation stage to get ready for the competition.

Full body

Many, many years ago today, one small family had a very memorable day; I showed up.  To be more specific, I was born.  So, to celebrate, I’m going to talk about something that’s more important to me than some other aspects of the automotive industry: trucks and trailers.  I care about this because I’m a horseback rider and animal lover; in fact, I just got back from the Midwest Horse Fair, where (among other things) I talked to a German who’s ridden in so many Bentleys he can’t stand the sight of them and took a lesson with an Olympian who’s one of the best riders in the world.  And how did the horses get to the fair?  Trucks and trailers.

Truck and trailer

Horses have to get around somehow, too!

All right, so maybe it’s a stretch to think there’s such an overflow of horse trailers on the roadways that they’re the number one concern in the green automotive industry.  It’s also a stretch to think that the MSOE SMV will be hauling around a few thousand pounds of aluminum and horses anytime soon.  Still, they’re a piece of the puzzle, and they’re related to an even bigger part: the trucking industry.

We might not hear much about trucking, but think about it for a moment.  How do most products get anywhere?  You got it.  From bananas to books to basketballs, many things are shipped around the country to get where they need to be.

Of course, there have been improvements in the trucking (and truck) industry over the years.  Ultra low-sulfur diesel is now standard, truckers are idling less, vehicles are becoming more aerodynamic, and new engines are reducing particulate matter pollution.  And trucks are moving beyond simply diesel; companies with fleets are looking to alternative fuels to cut down on future costs and protect the environment.  More than20% of the UPS fleet are hybrid vehicles.  FedEx, Coca-Cola, and AT&T are also jumping into the hybrid trucking game and spokespeople say they are already reaping the benefits.  Companies in Europe are already using all-electric vehicles.

Semi

Moving the products of our lives one highway at a time...

And commercial trucks aren’t alone in their quest for greener paths.  While many car companies undoubtedly spent too much time pushing fuel-hungry big trucks and SUVs,  manufacturers are trying to step up their games in the light truck market, too.

Still, no matter how you slice it, trucks are bigger than most vehicles and are more polluting than most vehicles, too.  But they are a part of our societal structure.  There are certainly ways to cut down on the costs of trucking, like those hybrids and the improved structures of big trucks.  And there is more to be done, like considering other forms of transportation (trains) or simply trying to reduce hauling (grocery stores selling local in-season produce).  Trucks are like cars; they aren’t going anywhere, but we can keep looking for ways to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce their environmental impact.

After all, those horses aren’t going to haul themselves.

My mom called me the other day (bless her).  She had heard about this guy in Madison who was foreign and drove a special car, so she thought I should know about it.  After much confusion and several Google searches, I figured out what she was talking about, and it was pretty exciting.

There’s a team in Madison that  is a contender for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition; they’re now in the final 31.  The apparent team leader is Chris Beebe of Foreign Car Specialists.  Reading about Chris and the X Prize, it sounds a lot like SMV.  Except maybe that there’s $10 million up for grabs.

Progressive X Prize

If $10 million doesn't motivate you, I don't know what will.

Basically, the X Prize is trying to get automotive engineers (or people who are really good with cars) to build a production-ready high-mileage vehicle that is reasonably priced.  They say their goal is “to inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change.”

There are two main categories, similar to other competitions of this nature: the mainstream class and the alternative class.  While both categories specify that cars be “road ready,” there is more room for the imagination in the alternative class.  The mainstream class must fit at least four adults and drive like a reasonable car that could be on the roads today (drive at highway speeds, have cargo space, and so forth).  The best car in this class will win its team $5 million.  The alternative class has two options – tandem seating and side-by-side seating – and allows teams to be a little more creative in their design.  The two winning cars will each receive $2.5 million.

While the SMV competition is two days in length, the X Prize has several stages teams must go through, culminating with competition and testing of the eight to 15 vehicles late this summer, with the winners announced in September.  Almost all of the testing occurs in Michigan, although one phase occurs down in Illinois.  Considering the rigorous testing, this seems like a huge deal.

To Chris Beebe, I’m sure it is.  He’s given up working in his car shop to devote his time to the two cars he’s working on for the X Prize (sounds like some dedicated SMVers I know).  There’s no telling where he’ll go; the self-educated guy is up against a wide range of competitors, from students to other companies to manufacturers.  With that much money on the line, it’s hard not to want to get involved.

I have to say, these X Prize people seem to know what’s up.  As their website explains, there are huge barriers keeping the automotive industry from moving forward to create a green supercar.  Well, let me rephrase that: there are huge barriers keeping the automotive industry from building a consumer-ready green supercar.  Prototypes abound, and that’s spectacular.  But at the end of the day, to affect real change, we need to get different cars in the hands of the masses.

Maybe the best thing about this competition is that it’s admitting there is a real, urgent problem that needs action, not someday, not maybe, but now.  Admitting there’s a problem is the first step, and while there’s certainly reluctance even there, it’s so exciting that there are programs like SMV and X Prize out there.

A couple weeks ago, 59 judges from 25 countries at the New York Auto Show decided that the best car in the world isn’t the Prius or the Smart car.  No, they went with the good quality German engineering of the VW BlueMotion Polo Mk5.

VW Polo

Do you think Ralph Lauren drives one of these?

Wait, blue what?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  If you don’t know about VW’s BlueMotion series, which took home the Best Green Car award, don’t feel bad; none of the cars are available in the United States, the country with the second highest carbon emissions in the world.

Volkswagen introduced the BlueMotion line of cars in 2006 and has been consistently producing more cars with the technology.  The lineup now includes models of the Polo, the Golf, and the Passat.  The idea behind the name?  Combine VW’s corporate color with an action that cars tend to do.  The idea behind the technology?  Increase fuel efficiency.

Most of the BlueMotion cars use a 1.3-liter three-cylinder Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) diesel engine that gets 60 mpg and emits 102 grams of CO2 per kilometer.  The new engine (that was in the winning Polo) has a 1.6-liter engine that achieves 62 mpg.  There are other reports of higher gas mileages and lower emissions, but because the series is not in the United States, there are no official EPA numbers.

Of course, one does not win international competitions on engines alone (or even SMV competitions, for that matter).  In addition to revamping the engine with diesel particulate filters and oxidizing catalytic converters, VW lengthened the last two gear ratios on its transmission.  The bodies of the BlueMotion cars have also been updated with revamped spoilers, lowered suspensions, and more aerodynamic undercarriages.  The result?  A car that beat one of the most popular green cars in the world: the Toyota Prius, which gets about 50 mpg and emits 88g CO2/km according to the EPA.

Toyota Prius

Move over, Mr. Hybrid. Clean diesel cars are coming to town.

“It is not necessary to add an electric motor and a heavy battery pack to achieve class-leading efficiency,” one judge said.  “Based on Volkswagen’s common-rail diesel engines, the BlueMotion models are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market. In fact, the Passat BlueMotion can travel just about 1,000 miles on one tank of fuel in the European cycle. As far as internal combustion engines go today, these models are the ultimate you can get.”

1,000 miles on a tank?  Sign me up.  Volkswagen has recently talked about bringing the BlueMotion cars to the United States, although I’ve yet to find an exact timeline or other info.  Their reluctance to bring these cars to the US market (which is certainly hungering for environmentally-friendly cars) is likely due to our preconceived notions of diesels.  Rather than super-efficient small vehicles, we tend to associate diesel engines with huge, powerful trucks spewing black exhaust.  Audi has been trying to combat this image by marketing their clean diesel technology (remember the green police?) and perhaps they can help clear the path for the BlueMotion lineup.

I have a friend, J, who lives in San Francisco, arguably one of the more environmentally-friendly cities in the nation.  Last spring, I jetted out West to visit her and was amazed by all the different forms of public transportation they have:  buses, ferries, streetcars, cable cars, trains, you name it, they have it.  While I was out there, we even hopped on a tandem bike and cruised across the Golden Gate bridge.  Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that; we nearly crashed three times within the first five minutes, got passed by other tandem riders at least twice our age, and dragged our butts only halfway across the bridge.  The guys who rented us the bicycle were truly surprised to see us return relatively able-bodied.

While in SF, J and I also went on a GoCar tour.  It was basically a tour of the city that was led by a “GPS-guided storytelling car,” which is almost like a microcar (it even has three wheels!).  That was a ton of fun, even though our car’s GPS was broken and didn’t talk to us, let alone offer guidance, the entire trip.

Gocar

Yeah, they're smiling now, but wait until they try to make it up a giant hill and some creepers think about hopping in the back of that thing.

While these might not be practical everyday commuting solutions, San Francisco has this public transportation thing down.  And traveling with other people is a super way to reduce carbon emissions.  San Francisco does a great job encouraging alternative forms of transportation and is often ranked as one of the best cities to commute in.

It’s not practical for all cities to be like San Francisco, and certainly not all people can live like that.  But there are definitely things we can do to challenge ourselves to make our cities a little bit greener.  Maybe bike to work on those nice days.  (Worried about getting fit enough?  Check out this blog for tips.)  Hop on the bus (maybe even a hybrid if you’re in Madison) if you’re not in a big time crunch.  Even just carpooling with friends or co-workers can reduce carbon emissions in your city.

Tandem Bike

This could be you and your fave SMV friend!

Of course, there are lots of people who will argue that these small steps aren’t enough to do any good for the environment or anything else.  And they’re probably right; at this point in time, we may need drastic measures to stop or reverse climate change and damage to the earth.  But that doesn’t mean a single person’s actions don’t mean anything.  Everything adds up, good or bad.  So dust off that old two-seater bike and pedal away with your best bud.  It might be a little perilous, but at least it’s something!

After a long, successful spring break, the SMV team has completed the carbon fiber body.  Of course, there’s still plenty to do, but the team is right on track.

Top body

Sleek, sexy carbon fiber...mmm

A couple weeks ago, I talked a bit about how it can be better for the environment to continue to drive older, fuel efficient cars rather than buy new cars, which take resources and produce carbon emissions to make.  I plan on driving my car until it peters out on me, but I’m nothing compared to these car-loving auto owners who told their stories on CNN’s iReport.

Here are a few of my favorite stories.

This guy has a self-admitted obsession with his Acura Legend Coupe.  With over 400,000 miles on it, he’s visited 40 states (including Alaska) and is still running with the original transmission and engine.  The guy even keeps a spreadsheet of all the maintenance he’s done on the car; he’ll email it to you if you don’t believe him.  Here’s a video (with swanky music) of the car turning 400k.

Here’s a Dodge Neon that has over half a million miles on it.  Its owner bought it new with a grand total of 12 miles on it; I guess you could say they’ve had a lot of time to get to know each other in the 12 years he’s had the car.  Even now, with that super high mileage on the car, the guy’s biggest fear is getting into an accident and having insurance companies refuse to fix the car because of its lack of KBB value.  The car is claimed to routinely get at least 32 mpg, which is pretty great regardless of car model.

This woman and her Ford F-150 prove that you don’t have to have a tiny car to drive it forever.  She’s got over 325,000 miles on her truck and all she’s had to do is replace the transmission at 150k and change the oil regularly.  So even if you drive a bigger car or truck, you can still suck every last drop of life out of it!

I have to put this one in here because it’s a bit unbelievable, but seems to have the proof to back it up.  Here’s a 2007 Toyota Yaris with an incredible 400,000 miles on it.  Apparently, its owner has to drive a ton for work (and trust me, to put on that many miles in four years is a huge amount of driving).  The car still has most of its original parts, although it did need a new alternator and new shoes and pads.  I don’t know how long the car will last with its owners accident-prone driving style, but that is a lot of miles!

Last but not least, let’s give some props to those fantastic Germans.  This guy (and his mom) have been driving their ’89 Mercedes Benz 300E for almost 300,000 miles.  Despite surviving a crash with a newbie driver, the car has had minimal problems and has stalled out only four times in its lifetime.

Moral of these stories: loving your car might keep it alive longer, just because it’s old/has lots of miles doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, and change your oil!  I know we’re American; we tend to like new, shiny, cool things.  We talk about that “new car smell.”  But sometimes the things we can get the most pleasure from are neither new nor especially pretty.  Take stock of what your actual needs are and decide accordingly.  And if you need help keeping your jalopy alive, talk to one of those guys from iReport!

The team is (as ever) hard at work.  The Milwaukee School of Engineering is on spring break, but that means little to these dedicated engineers who are putting in hours every day.

This week, one big project is finishing the carbon fiber body.  They’ve finished the bottom of the body and the chassis (and if I may say so myself, both turned out beautifully, super smooth and glassy).  Now, they’ve moved on to the top of the body, which we last saw in the fiberglass form (much thanks to Midwest Composite Technologies for all their help with the car body!).  The team laid out the carbon fiber, bonded it together, and now it’s sealed away in its vacuum-induced sleep, ready to awake in four to five days, now prepared for the challenges the team will throw at it.

On a different note, can you tell I’m not an engineer?  Anyways, take a look at the top of the body.

Carbon top

And now the waiting game commences...

As you may remember, the team will compete with their car coming up June 10-11 in Marshall, Michigan.  While this is certainly the number one priority, the fun doesn’t stop there.  The car (we really need a name for this thing) will be displayed July 8-11 at Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The whole exhibit will feature the SMV, several antique microcars, and example(s) of hybrid vehicles.  We are so grateful to have this opportunity and when the team gets the rare break from working on the car, they’re working on the museum exhibit.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, Discovery World sits right on Lake Michigan next to Summerfest grounds.  The location is absolutely gorgeous and the museum is a lot of fun; it says it tries to connect “innovation, science, technology and the environment with exploration and learning through interactive exhibits and experiential learning programs.”

Discovery World

What a gorgeous location!

Really, what better venue could we have?  The SMV team definitely covers the bases in Discovery World’s mission.  In addition to the cars, we will have interactive, hands-on exhibits for kids to enjoy.  At the end of the day, we’re hoping to provide interesting, relevant information about the history and future of fuel-efficient vehicles.  However cliched it sounds, the children are our future, and this is stuff they should know.  We think so, at least!

We will also hopefully have guest speakers, including an insurance representative to explain what car insurance is and why we need it.  While this perhaps doesn’t sound super exciting, how many of you really know how insurance works, or what to do if you’re in an accident, or how to change your insurance plan?  Yeah.  Didn’t think so.

To be honest, I’m really excited for the SMV team to have this great opportunity to meet with the public.  The SMV engineers are so enthusiastic and committed to what they do.  They were the kids who wanted to know how everything works, and by now, they’re well on their ways to figuring out all that stuff.  This gives them a chance to interact with the next generation of engineers who will be working to solve the world’s problems.  And no matter how hard I try, I don’t speak “engineer.”  But the team does, and this is a fantastic chance for them to inspire the up and coming students.

This week marked the 26th Shell Eco-marathon, a competition where innovation reigns supreme.  Laval University from Canada took top honors at the Houston, Texas event, as did Purdue University and the Cicero North Syracuse High School team from New York.

Eco-marathon

While the Eco-marathon (a competition similar to SMV that encourages teams of students to build fuel efficient vehicles) as we know it has only been around since 1985, Shell scientists held their own version of the event way back in 1939.  Of course, this involved a bunch of scientists taking bets on whose car could get the best miles per gallon, so it is a little different from the competition today.

There are two types of competitors at the Eco-marathon: prototype models (cars that try to be the most fuel efficient while meeting basic safety measures) and UrbanConcept (vehicles that are similar to cars you’d see on roadways but are still as fuel efficient as possible).  Car models can run on pretty much anything, including:

  • Diesel
  • Petrol
  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas
  • Biodiesel
  • Ethanol
  • Solar
  • Electric
  • Biofuels
  • Gas to Liquids

Prizes are awarded based on categories.  This year in the Prototype section, Laval got 2,487.5 miles per gallon in the combustion engine category.  The Cicero team took top honors in the fuel cell/hydrogen cars with 780.9 miles per gallon while Purdue won the solar competition with 4,548 mpg.

Purdue Solar Car

Purdue students were undoubtedly pretty thrilled about their performance in the solar category.

Over on the UrbanConcept side, the Mater Dei High School from Evansville, IN won the combustion engine category with 437.2 mpg.  Other awards, such as People’s Choice, Design, and Best Team Spirit were doled out, as you can see in this complete list of winners.

So it’s clear that this competition is set up a little differently than the Supermileage Vehicle event.  It’s run by a private company (all Eco-marathoners run Shell fuels, natch), there are fewer specs for the vehicles, and it’s open to students from all walks of life, rather than collegiate engineers.  Put simply, I think the whole thing is great.  Hopefully I can learn more about it and report back, but from what I do know, the set-up seems pretty neat.  Shell is encouraging fuel efficiency in any form and giving kids a chance to experiment and think about different ways of doing things without having to invest millions of research dollars (although I think those investments are important, too).  Students are a fantastic resource, and as a student, I say capitalize on us!  Use us (within reason)!  We need experience, you need people doing work, and we may as well be doing work that can make a difference, right?

If I’ve figured out anything, it’s that there is no single clear way forward.  There are a million ways to skin a cat, and while hopefully we won’t have to figure out a million different paths forward from here on out, we certainly need all these ideas and skill sets.  Way to go, Eco-marathon competitors!

Last weekend, the MSOE Supermileage Vehicle team had some big, important work to do: laying out the carbon fiber for the lower half of the body and the car frame (the piece the driver half sits/half lays on).  I know there are some pretty complex steps involved, so I’ll leave the explaining to the rest of the team (you can expect a video of the process soon!).  But essentially, three layers of carbon fiber are glued together and put in a giant vacuum sealer to cure for about four or five days.  And then, voila!  A gorgeous carbon fiber body!

Bottom body

There it is - the bottom of the body.

Not everyone was helping out with the body, though.  About half of the team was in the machine shop, working hard on the steering and other mechanical components of the vehicle.  I got a chance to speak with most of the team members; you can look forward to a video about the team in the future, too.

Frame

Everything is moving right along.

Frame

Not your typical driver's seat, huh?

But as the team was sitting around answering all my questions, something interesting came up.  One of the guys said he hoped people realize just how much time was put into this project.  Sven, team president, disagreed.

“Our time doesn’t matter to anyone except us,” Sven said.  “We know how much time we put in, but everyone else will just care about the finished product.”

His comment got me thinking.  Sven’s probably right; no one will care about the thousands of collective hours he and his teammates have put into this car (even though I definitely think they shoul).  But I don’t think that problem is singular to the MSOE SMV.  I think people tend to care more about the finished product and its attributes or flaws without realizing the labor and brainpower behind it.  Whether the product is a new car or a new computer or an innovative piece of technology, everything takes work.  Even the poor ideas or inventions often require copious amounts of effort.

I think if we can understand this, not just about SMVs but about everything new and different, we might be a little more accepting, a little more understanding.  Nothing happens overnight.  So if you want better cars, better computers, better anythings, acknowledge the work.  Acknowledge that people are trying and probably doing the best they can.  Do the best you can.  And put in the work, whatever else you do.

It’s pretty easy to be pessimistic about the way things are right now.  Looking ahead to the future, there doesn’t seem to be any major issue facing our country that has an easy solution.  Think about it: the economy, foreign affairs, the health of our citizens, the environment, politics.  We’ve got some big problems, and it’s pretty easy to get disheartened.

But there’s an upside (or at least I have to think there’s an upside – life would be way too depressing otherwise).    Now is an exciting time to be working on this stuff.  There is no clear answer, which means there is hopefully room for innovative, off-the-wall ideas.  I mean, you’ve seen those SMVs.  None of them will be heading out on the roadways anytime soon!  But they can help us change the rulebook we play by.

Early computer

Look familiar? As one of the first computers, probably not. But look where the computer is today!

(Speaking of those hardworking SMVers, the fiberglass molds came out beautifully and they’ll be working on laying out the carbon fiber this weekend.  I should be heading down there to get a full report, so stay tuned!)

It’s really easy to shoot down new ideas when we first hear them.  I do it myself all the time, even if I try not to.  Believing in something, trusting in something means you have to put yourself out there.  You’re opening yourself up to failure and disappointment and probably to mockery if you put your faith in something that didn’t work.  Yet this is the way forward.  It’s murky and messy with no guarantees, but think about how far we’ve come in the last hundred years and what might be possible in the next century if we can ignore the chips on our shoulders and take a chance on something that seems insane.  You’ll probably get burned and lord knows there will be a ton of people ready to pick your bones, but do it anyways, because even if you never see something tangible, even if it seems impossible, one day you’ll cross the line from unimaginable to reality.

And then it will all have been worth it.

Don’t take the simple path.  We all you’re better than that.

Keeping that in mind, we’re going to delve into some pretty unorthodox technologies in the next few days.  Don’t shut it out right away.  Just because things have been done one way for as long as you’ve known them doesn’t mean anything.Hope quote

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