McMaster and Waterloo teams are electrifying the Muscle Car

Can you have a muscle car that sounds mean yet runs on electricity to be green? Two Canadian teams are finding a way to make the idea a reality.

By Mark Richardson Wheels.ca

May 10, 2016 5 min. read

Article was updated 8 years ago

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This won’t be your average Camaro, but it’s the future.

It’s the future for technology: a plug-in hybrid muscle car that can run from zero-to-100 km/h in less than five seconds, but it can also drive at least 50 kilometres on pure electric power.

It’s also the future for engineering research. More than a hundred students at Hamilton’s McMaster University are cutting their teeth on the Camaro. They’re designing it, preparing it, and ultimately driving it to prove its abilities.

It’s all for a special competition — EcoCAR3 — which is challenging teams to innovate and build a plug-in hybrid version of the Chevrolet Camaro without compromising on its muscle car traits.

Now they’re halfway through the four-year project, and a delegation will travel this month to Arizona and California to show their progress to judges of EcoCAR 3.

The competition is spread over four years because that’s the typical time frame for a manufacturer to develop a new car.

EcoCAR is considered the world’s premier automotive engineering program for university students. It’s an evolution of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition, which has been running since 1988.

Evolving competition

Sixteen different North American universities are competing to create the best car, with considerable resources available. Organizers estimate the total value of donations in cash and kind is worth about U.S. $940 million, though much of that is the value of proprietary software.

“The students are just so pumped up for doing all these really fancy things — basically, we are pushing the limits on research,” says Ali Emadi, McMaster’s faculty adviser and the Canada Excellence Research Chair for Hybrid Powertrain.

“It has gone smoothly so far, but of course, it has been expensive.”

This is the first time McMaster is fielding a team in the competition. The University of Waterloo is the only other Canadian entrant, and it’s been competing for the last 20 years.
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“There are two things I get out of the competition,” says Roydon Fraser, Waterloo’s faculty adviser. “I see how accomplished the students become — they get hired by companies and walk into positions they wouldn’t always do. Secondly, as far as I’m concerned, if the Canadian teams beat the States, that’s all I want.”

General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy are the major sponsors, though other automakers have been involved in previous years.

Each entrant in the competition is responsible for finding additional sponsorship, and in Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council provides some funding.

The goal, according to EcoCAR, is to redesign a Chevrolet Camaro “to reduce its environmental impact, while maintaining the muscle and performance expected from this iconic American car.”

In the first year, the student teams came up with their designs, and in the second year, they received the donated car and started pulling it apart to install a hybrid powertrain.

It’s this vehicle that will be tested this month at General Motors’ desert proving ground in Yuma, Ariz.

In the next two years, the Camaro will be refined into a safe, efficient and powerful hybrid performance car.

“It’s an invaluable opportunity to apply your technical knowledge in a hands-on way,” says Vanessa Raponi, the McMaster team’s business manager and a fourth-year student of materials engineering and management.

“In the classroom, you can only learn so much theory, but we get to apply that theory (and) put it into practice using industry software. You can’t beat that.”

Fraser agrees that the practical experience is one of the greatest strengths of EcoCAR, because it never goes as smoothly as hoped. “It’s a challenge, and the word challenge should be in all capitals,” he says. “It’s a very complex system. Students are not generally geared toward constructive items — they generally do a lot of analysis with not a lot of hands-on work — and it’s complex stuff.”

Different approaches

There are several different options for the hybrid powertrain design and teams must agree on which would be best and most attainable for the Camaro.

This is a challenge in itself because the students on the team come from every year of study and a number of disciplines. First year undergraduates mix with doctoral candidates, and engineers with communications graduates.

“It’s been a really cool experience,” says Matt Clarke, the team’s social media manager who’s in his final year of a communications program at McMaster. “I’m definitely learning a lot — I’m exposed to so much more than I would be just in a classroom. It’s all the little things it takes to make something come together.”

Clarke will be travelling down to Arizona this month to help promote McMaster’s entry, and while he’s there, he’ll meet dozens of students from competing universities.

EcoCAR director Kristen Wahl says this interaction and co-operation among like-minded students is invaluable for later in life. Wahl, who’s based at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, has been working with the competition for 20 years.

“The number one, primary outcome of our competition is talent,” says Wahl. “We’ve had 15,000 students go through this program over its history, and something like 80 per cent of those have gone on into the automotive industry. Most of those are working on products like the (Chevrolet) Volt, the Bolt, the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Model S.
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“Our competition is a proving ground for the next generation of automotive engineers that is bringing the production vehicle technology of sustainable transportation to life.

“As well as that, our students are using off-the-shelf technology in innovative ways — that’s very important.”

At the end of it all, two years from now, teams expect to have a fully-functional, roadworthy and refined 2016 Chevy Camaro plug-in hybrid in their garages.

Once the competition is complete, will anyone get to drive the new Camaro ?

“We’re going to have a lot of fun with the Camaro and I think we’re going to keep it,” says Emadi at McMaster. “It’s so much fun to test this car. There are a lot of people who think an electric car cannot be fun, or they criticize electrification.

“All you have to do is give them the keys to an electrified car and say, just drive. It’s amazing. I’m lucky that we get to work on amazing cars, and sometimes, once in a while, I get to take those cars to test them at a track. And boy — they’re really good.”

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