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On the Right Track

September 6, 2013

After a bumpy start, Cal State L.A.'s EcoCAR 2 gains speed in second year of the competition.

The CSULA EcoCAR is subjected to rigorous testing

The CSULA EcoCAR is subjected to rigorous testing on braking and acceleration, gradeability, emissions and energy consumption, drive and dynamic consumer acceptability at the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz. Photo courtesy EcoCAR 2.

Ren Fang was bracing for disappointment. As organizers for the EcoCAR 2 challenge counted down the top six finishers for the second year of competition in the posh ballroom of San Diego's historic Hotel Del Coronado in May, the electrical engineering major worried the CSULA team wouldn't make the list. They had endured penalties, after all, and University of Washington and Penn State had some impressive performances.

But when the emcee began to describe the second-place team, Fang and his teammates erupted in excitement.

"I was looking at Michel Choi and Chris Reid and we were in absolute shock," Fang says. "I remember looking at Chris and putting two fingers up and whispering 'second?' He had this look of disbelief and nodded back to me with eyes popping out of his head like a goldfish."

Cal State L.A. receives second place

Cal State L.A. receives second place for the year two competition at the awards ceremony in San Diego. From left: Lupe Bañales, Michel Choi, Justin Bower, Chris Reid, Ren Fang, Abdul Shabana, Yessenia Toscano, Lester Dolmos, Jovanny Gomez, Kortnee Smith, Professor David Blekhman, Acting Associate Dean of College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology Benjamin Lee. Photo courtesy EcoCAR 2.

The Cal State L.A. EcoCAR 2 team had reason to be excited. After placing 13 out of 15 in year one, second place signaled a comeback.

EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future is a three-year competition that challenges 15 North American universities to reduce the environmental impact of a Chevrolet Malibu without compromising performance, safety and consumer acceptability.

Established by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors (GM), EcoCAR 2 builds upon a 23-year history of Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions in which public/private partnerships provide experience and training to promising minds entering the workforce.

CSULA's EcoCAR 2 is a multidisciplinary effort, with students forming teams specializing in engineering, business and communication. The competition supplies a vehicle along with some of the software, components and tools, but students must fundraise and take on sponsors to pay for equipment and travel.

Each year follows a stage in the development of a new automobile. The year one contest is all about design. Teams perform a well-to-wheel analysis and use digital modeling and simulation software to formulate and virtually test a strategy for hybrid conversion.

The competition requires teams to convert the Malibu into a plug-in electric hybrid, so CSULA settled on a design that connects an E85 (ethanol fuel blend of 85 percent) gas engine in the front to an electric motor in the rear. But after being judged on mechanical, electrical and control designs, as well as outreach, business plans and trade show displays, the team came away from year one in 13th place.

Fang explained it was a matter of inexperience for the rookies.

"For most of year one, we did not know what we were doing. So at the year one competition, we were months behind other teams … Many of us knew nothing about vehicles in the beginning."

The team was crushed, but the blow served as a powerful motivator.

"I knew 13th wasn't good enough," says Abraham Vargas, marketing major and the team's business manager. "Every week of year two, I wanted to make sure that we were improving."

Over summer 2012, the team restructured and Reid, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, was appointed leader. Some original members left after graduation and the team recruited heavily from numerous departments across campus.

Team members attended workshops sponsored by EcoCAR 2 organizers, and upper classmen held training sessions on simulation software and vehicle basics. They consulted their GM mentors and faculty adviser, Professor David Blekhman, more often.

By the time regional inspections took place in March, CSULA was the only team to have a running vehicle.

"That's where we got a lot of drive to continue," says Reid. "Seeing where the other teams were. Knowing that none of them were running a car at that point affirmed that as long as we show up to competition with a reliable vehicle, we would do well."

The CSULA EcoCAR in the garage at Yuma.

The CSULA EcoCAR in the garage at the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz., in May. Photo courtesy EcoCAR 2.

In May, the team rolled into the GM Desert Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz., for six days of rigorous vehicle testing and evaluation. CSULA was the second team to pass safety inspection and the only to finish all events—with air conditioning—which helped boost consumer acceptability. That was a point of pride for the team's members.

"Our school is well-known for engineering competitions," says Lester Dolmos, an electrical engineering major. "A lot of the other vehicles were breaking down. Some didn't even run. Our vehicle always finished."

Indeed, Cal State L.A. has a proud history of top performances in vehicle engineering competitions, including first-place finishes in the 1997 Sunrayce solar vehicle competition, the 1996, 1998 and 1999 Mini Baja West challenges, and the 2004 Supermileage competition.

With Reid behind the wheel, CSULA achieved the fastest time on autocross, but because they weren't operating on a hybrid system yet, the team was penalized 15 points per category and prohibited from placing first in any event. Penn State won the year two competition by 12 points.

With an electric motor ready and awaiting GM approval, the team will spend year three refining the system, increasing performance and keeping standards high for competition finals in Washington, D.C., in May 2014.

Team leaders are looking to recruit more students to help with everything from engineering and computer programming to marketing, accounting and even help for writing reports. Alumni may also get involved through mentoring or in-kind donations of equipment, service or financial support.

Follow the CSULA EcoCAR 2 online at