EcoCAR EV Challenge Marks a New Era for UC Davis Engineering

Over the next four years, UC Davis students will be designing the car of the future as part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s EcoCAR Electric Vehicle (EV) Challenge. The competition challenges students to convert a Cadillac LYRIQ EV into an autonomous, next-generation battery-electric vehicle with vehicle-to-everything connectivity so it can interact with devices and the environment.

Students will gain teamwork, leadership and hands-on automotive engineering experience with a full-scale vehicle that can help them launch their careers. In the process, they will solve technical challenges in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, systems architecture and computer vision and sensing. They will also participate in outreach and consider how their designs and EV technology might benefit historically underserved communities.

Three UC Davis members standing in front of a Cadillac LYRIQ EV
UC Davis members at the EcoCAR EV Challenge launch event in Washington D.C.
Left to right: MAE Ph.D. student Mohammad Abtahi, CS Associate Professor of Teaching Chris Nitta, PH&EV Program Manager Dahlia Garas.
(Photo: U.S. Department of Energy)

“The College of Engineering continues to be a leader in responding to challenges that impact society, and by participating in the EcoCAR EV Challenge, our future leaders will work to build innovative solutions to our world’s energy and mobility needs,” said Dean Richard L. Corsi.

EcoCAR is the latest series in the Department of Energy (DOE) and Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition (AVTC), which began in 1988. UC Davis is among 15 universities selected to participate, its first AVTC competition since 2008.

The team has an initial $1.2 million combined investment from the DOE, MathWorks and General Motors—who will donate a LYRIQ to each team—as well as the UC Davis Office of Research, Graduate Studies and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) and the mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) and computer science (CS) departments.

Mike Hill
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Mike Hill

The student-run team will be advised by MAE Professor Mike Hill, CS Associate Professor of Teaching Chris Nitta and ITS Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center Program Manager Dahlia Garas, and other faculty mentors plan to join the project as it gets underway.

The Flagship of a New Era

EcoCAR will ramp up this fall as the college’s Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center (ESDC) re-opens after a two-year expansion and renovation. The two are set to grow together and benefit everything that calls the ESDC home.

Chris Nitta
Computer Science Associate Professor of Teaching Chris Nitta

As an AVTC program alumnus, Nitta remembers many teammates working on multiple design teams simultaneously, often transferring equipment, techniques and knowledge across projects. The program also brought special equipment to campus that all the student project teams could use. EcoCAR is poised to play a similar role.

“We will be coming out of a major disruption in the fall from COVID and the renovation, so starting a big project like this is going to help us get everything else moving,” said Hill. “This is something that will help shape that new facility to serve the needs of not just this project, but all of the student projects.”

EcoCAR is also the perfect opportunity to strengthen collaboration between the college and ITS. ITS is a world-renowned transportation research institute, and while there’s always been an overlap with engineering, there haven’t been many collaborative projects. With EcoCAR, ITS can leverage its multidisciplinary expertise and industry connections to help student engineers solve real-world problems.

The team also hopes to insert elements of EcoCAR into various parts of the curriculum, either through research course credits or by having students work on EcoCAR in capstone design projects.

EV Technology for All

Addressing diversity, equity and inclusion issues is at the heart of the EcoCAR challenge and UC Davis is uniquely positioned for success because of its campus culture that embraces diversity.

Dahlia Garas
ITS Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center Program Manager Dahlia Garas

“When you start talking about smart vehicle technologies, it’s not just about the powertrain anymore,” said Garas. “You have to look at how people use it and we have to consider the audience, adoption and accessibility.”

This starts with creating a team of diverse students. EcoCAR will recruit from the college’s award-winning Leadership in Engineering Advancement, Diversity and Retention (LEADR) and Avenue E programs, which help attract, retain and support engineering students from underrepresented backgrounds. Introduction to Engineering Design (ENG 3) is another opportunity to hook students after getting their first hands-on engineering design experience working on the car.

The team will fund key undergraduate and graduate student leaders to make sure they can participate.

“Especially for lower-income students, that funding is critical to their involvement,” said Garas. “If they need to be working to get by in college and they aren’t funded, it’s hard to be part of the project.”

Next, the team will connect with underserved communities. This could range from using ITS’ industry connections, to K-12 outreach, to hosting “roadshows” with the LYRIQ to spark interest in EVs. Hill thinks this is an excellent opportunity to inspire people with UC Davis’ research and start important conversations about the use of EV technology. The team also hopes to use its student members to engage community stakeholders.

“I don’t think we really know how underserved communities could use EV technology, so we need to get this information from different types of stakeholders and then find ways to serve them in partnership with those communities,” said Hill.

Building on History

Though the EcoCAR team is new, it builds upon a long history. UC Davis competed in AVTC competitions between 1992 and 2008 while advised by MAE Professor Emeritus Andy Frank— widely regarded as the grandfather of the plug-in hybrid EV.

Frank’s nickname was “Professor Fate,” inspired by an ambitious character in The Great Race, and the students took his spirit—and name—with them. “Team Fate” finished first in their class in 1994 and 1995, won the whole competition in 1997 and 2001, received awards for their technical reports four times and racked up awards for teamwork, dynamic handling, powertrain technology, vehicle modeling, telematics and fuel efficiency.

Nitta and Garas were part of Team Fate as students, and many of their teammates have gone on to successful careers in automotive engineering. They hope to bring some of them back to campus as alumni and industry mentors for the EcoCAR team.

Team Fate group photo
UC Davis "Team Fate" finished first in their class in 1994 and 1995, and won the whole competition in 1997 and 2001.

“I am personally and professionally indebted to the partnership, collaboration and mentorship of the faculty and students of the UC Davis AVTC programs,” said Tom Bradley, now Department Head and Woodward Professor of Systems Engineering at Colorado State University (CSU). “I’m delighted to be able to contribute to the continued excellence of this program in any role, and CSU will actively seek to collaborate, recruit, share educational work products, and safety and design best practices with the UC Davis program.”

Though Team Fate disbanded after Frank retired, UC Davis has continued its success in automotive engineering competitions through Formula Racing at UC Davis (FRUCD) since 2009. FRUCD’s experience and success in building all-electric race cars is the basis of the new EcoCAR team that looks to continue Team Fate’s legacy.

Pressing the Accelerator

EcoCAR starts this spring with two information sessions on Monday, May 9 from 12 – 1 p.m., and Tuesday, May 24 from 5 – 6 p.m., in 1003 Kemper Hall. Hill will also lead a “modeling on-ramp” this summer, where students will construct a system dynamics model of an EV powertrain to begin thinking about how mass and electric properties affect the control system.

In the fall, the team will be recruiting student managers to lead the team’s communications and DEI efforts respectively. They will also be looking to recruit graduate students as advisors and mentors, as well as faculty, alumni and industry partners who can help the team.

“We expect it to be a long journey that will hopefully change the lives for the better of the students who participate,” said Nitta.

“EcoCAR is all about developing students, turning out great engineers and professionals and enabling them to impact society,” said Hill.

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