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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

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Forty years ago today, a Wisconsin politician declared a day to honor those without a voice.  He wasn’t working to give rights to unborn fetuses or the disabled or the elderly.  He was working for nature.

I know I might lose some of you car buffs right there.  “Nature,” you might scoff.  “That’s the stuff I mow down every Wednesday in the summertime.  That’s what hides its face when I fly by in my convertible.  That’s what I dominate.”  And all that might be true.

But hear this.

Woods

Nature is also what gives you your favorite pets, the food on your plate, the rain to make that godforsaken grass grow.  It gives us the breathtaking sunsets, the jaw-dropping mountains, the intricacies of a single cell.  It has the power to cause volcanic eruptions and stop air traffic for a week, to send devastating hurricanes crashing to our shores, to destroy whole towns with a single tornado.  And right now, we are hurting nature in more ways than we can count, and you can bet our actions won’t come without consequences.

This isn’t about the doom and gloom, although there’s plenty of that if you look.  It’s about having the opportunity to make a difference in some way…in your way.  I can’t design a better battery or manufacture solar panels.  But I can write and help people to know about the amazing environmental efforts going on largely behind closed doors.  Bring the skills you have to the table and use them in a positive, important way.  There are limitless opportunities out there for all skills and all people.  We are living in an era of unheard of technological and societal advances and right now is the time to make a huge difference.  How tremendously exciting is that?

Nature

At the end of the day, it’s about looking outside yourself, making decisions you can stand behind, and becoming the best version of you possible.  Nobody can control your actions but you and really, actions are what we’re after.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and sometimes, that seems like what we’re doing.  So follow the example of Gaylord Nelson or Aldo Leopold or the SMV team.  It’s not about doing what everyone else is doing or what’s fashionable.  It’s about doing what’s right.

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.

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.

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.

So I thought it might be prudent to tell you what I want to talk about.  Now, I know that planning is often futile, but I’m going to try anyways.

Microcars: These are basically really, really tiny cars.  Ridiculously tiny (but also ridiculously adorable).  Honestly, these were more or less the first “green” vehicles – and they were popular over sixty years ago and got better gas mileage than most of the cars on the roads today.  I’m going to take a look back at the stories of these cute little cars, including these microcar makers: Messerschmitt, Heinkel, Reliant, Morris, Crosley, Isetta, Velorex, Goggomobil, Corbin, Peel, and whatever else catches my eye.

Green automotive technologies: Electric, hybrid, hydrogen, water, oxygen, solar, you name it, I want to learn about it and hopefully give some coherent information about the topic.

SMV teams: Obviously, I know a lot about Milwaukee’s team (or at least more than I know about other teams.  Of course, this is all relevant; I also think the main difference between two and four stroke engines is the kind of noise they make).  Regardless of competitive spirit, what these teams are doing is creative, brave, and deserves credit.

Other green car challenges: From the EcoCar challenge to races held around the world, I’m going to take a look at the other stuff going in the gas mileage arena.

Consumer vehicles: This is probably worthwhile to take a gander at.  After all, these super cars and water-powered vehicles might be pretty neat, but they’re not available to most of us.  So we have to make do with what’s out there somehow.

Barriers we face:   Oil tycoons.  Massive subsidies.  Central infrastructure.  That jerk who killed the electric car.  It might look like an uphill battle, but it’s what we got, and we gotta figure out what we need to do to keep trucking.  And keep on truckin’ we will – just maybe not in our beloved F-350s.

So that’s a hopeful look at the future.  Will I stick to it?  I’ll try.  Have a suggestion?  Let me know.  As with all life, when it boils down to it, this is a group effort.

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