The real prize for GM's EcoCar2 challenge? A job offer

GM is handing out job offers along with cash prizes to students participating in the EcoCar2 competition.

Liane Yvkoff
Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer who blogs about cars for CNET Car Tech. E-mail Liane.
Liane Yvkoff
3 min read

In each of the three years of EcoCar2 Challenge, General Motors will give away approximately $100,000 in prizes to the students participating in the alternative fuels vehicle competition. But for some students, the real prize will be a steady paycheck.

Headliners GM and the Department of Energy, along with 25 suppliers, sponsor EcoCar2, a three-year alternative fuels vehicle competition, as a way to encourage college students to enter the automotive industry. It provides a chance for young engineers to apply the theoretical education they gain in the classroom in the lab, giving them an advantage when it comes to finding a job at the end of their higher education. It also provides GM a great opportunity to find budding automotive innovators.

Students setting up their booths at the 2012 EcoCar Challenge sponsored by GM and the Department of Energy
Students setting up their booths at the 2012 EcoCar Challenge sponsored by GM and the Department of Energy GM

The 15 teams from across North America participating in EcoCar2 will be tasked with developing, implementing, and refining an alternative-fuel power train for a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. In this first year of the competition, teams are being judged on their engineering design plans and technology simulation, and those that meet GM's requirements will receive vehicles and funding to execute their plans over the next two years. Last year, the Virginia Tech team won the EcoCar challenge by increasing the fuel economy of a Saturn Vue SUV from 24 mpg to 80 mpg.

Teams will face a very similar challenge this go-round, and will be required to improve the 2013 Chevy Malibu's 29-mpg fuel economy average. Winners will be chosen based on a wide range of criteria, including gas mileage, tailpipe emissions, consumer acceptability, and data presentation. They'll have the added task of working with interior electronics system, such as developing a user interface to relay vehicle information to the driver. In other words, you can expect to see more apps at the end of year three, giving engineers a chance to showcase their programming skills.

The University of Waterloo's exhibit at the EcoCar2 Year One competition
The University of Waterloo's exhibit at the EcoCar2 Year One competition GM

The previous contest saw a range of power-train platforms, including a couple of ambitious fuel cell vehicles. However, the Malibu's smaller cargo capacity could make it even more difficult for teams to tackle complex systems. Brian Harries from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical School competed in EcoCar last year, and in a conference call yesterday with a few event participants and judges he explained that his team will use a simpler engineering strategy this year and focus more on consumer acceptability -- a key area in which vehicles are judged -- than architectural sophistication.

His team previously designed a compound hybrid system that enabled the Saturn Vue to operate as either a series hybrid or parallel hybrid, Harries said, which required them to move the energy sources to the cargo space. For this competition they'll keep it simple and just implement a plug-in hybrid power train and make sure the cargo area stays component-free for consumers.

At least one GM employee is sympathetic to Embry-Riddle's dilemma.

"All these trade-offs are challenges we're facing in the industry," Kent Helfrich, executive director of Electronic Controls and Software at GM, said in the same phone interview. "And that's why we want to hire them when they finish this vehicle program."

With a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirement of 54.5 mpg by 2025, acquiring top engineering talent will be key to automotive manufacturers complying with this aggressive target while delivering vehicles that consumers want. For the government, the EcoCar2 Challenge supports its energy strategy by developing the next generation of all-star engineers, which will help domestic manufacturers and suppliers competing with overseas markets, added David Danielson, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy at the DOE.

The U.S. has a highly innovative culture, Danielson said, and he believes that these programs give students the motivation to rise to the tough engineering challenge companies face. And in this case what's good for the country is also good for GM. Over the last few years, GM has hired over a hundred students that participated in the competition, Helfrich said.

Last night Mississippi State University was named Year One winner of the EcoCar2 Challenge and plans to implement a series-parallel plug-in hybrid power train in the Malibu it receives next year. But a dozen students can already count themselves winners even as the MSU team takes home the bulk of the cash prizes.

"We interviewed 12 students last night and made 12 job offers on the spot," Helfrich said. For them, a job offer is probably better than a trophy.