An Interview with UAlberta's EcoCar
Some student clubs entertain, some student clubs put out newspapers, and some have discussions. University of Alberta’s Eco Car team makes functional hydrogen cell powered vehicles with the best materials they can get their hands on. Beginning in 2010, the group has now made three cars, which are affectionately given human names. Steve, Alice, and Sofie are raced yearly at the Shell Eco Marathon Americas in Detroit, and they’ve even been invited to the Shell Eco Marathon Europe. Beyond their work in the marathons, Eco Car does a lot of community outreach that gives citizens a greater understanding of what it means to be environmentally friendly. At over 50 members to date, the Eco Car team just keeps growing and for good reason. To find out what fuels the group, I talked to their Associate Project Manager, Natasha Pye.
Can you tell me a little bit about your personal journey in joining the Eco Car team?
So I’m an engineering student and during the first month of school, all of the student vehicle project groups presented in one of my classes. Eco Car immediately piqued my interest. Sustainability is something I’m really passionate about, so our values aligned quite well. I went and talked to the student there, and I ended up joining the team right in my first year. I started getting involved on the outreach and education side of our team which is something that they didn’t really have before I joined. I started a big push for that, and then I transitioned into the project management side of the project.
What’s your focus with the group?
I saw how cool this club was and I wanted more people to know about it. It wasn’t just me -- our entire club really got on board with reaching out to other groups. The biggest direction that the Eco Car team has [is to] build fuel efficient vehicles, but we’ve also always wanted to give back to our bigger community, and to educate. A lot of us are quite passionate about sustainability, which is what drew us to joining the team.
[The Eco Car team] set up a booth at the student sustainability summit two years ago, we presented to elementary school children, and we have a lot of news coverage. We got out to quite a lot of the Edmonton, and greater-Alberta community. It was really great to be able to show not only our campus, but Edmonton that students are passionate about sustainability and we are passionate about becoming part of a more green future for Alberta.
There have been many different generations of the Eco Car and in the past, from what I understand, any given car has taken two years to complete. Can you talk a bit about how the group shifts their focus to a new car after working for so long on one car?
So it takes about two years to build an entirely new vehicle. For our urban concept vehicle–which is more widely known, it’s our larger vehicle–essentially what we’re doing is we try to build the outside of a vehicle in one year, and the inside of the vehicle the next year. It’s a two year cycle. It seems like a new car when we get that new outside, but even this year, we’re not building a new vehicle, we’re making modifications to our existing vehicles. We’re changing the insides of them, but there’s still a huge amount of work to be done.
Last year at competition we were able to see what areas we could make the biggest improvements on. This year [has been a] great learning experience for us to be able to implement some of those changes. We think we’re going to be able to achieve greater fuel efficiency this year, even though we’re not changing the vehicle. We essentially weighed each component of our vehicle to see where we were getting most of our mass, and to see where we could cut down that weight.
It’s a continuous learning process, and whether or not we have a new car to race that year, it doesn’t really stop our team’s approach.
To what degree are the methods that you use on the Eco Car transferrable to making a sustainable automobile?
The fundamental approach that we take of designing vehicles, doing testing on them, calculating factors of safety–these are the same approaches you would take to any large scale engineering problem. Our vehicle just happens to not be road safe. It doesn’t have the same safety features [as cars used by the public].
If we were designing a real car, we would just have to incorporate some of those other aspects that our vehicle doesn’t have.
On the technical side, the design and testing goes above and beyond what we learn in our classes so it is a transition from what we learn in our courses to real life engineering problems.
How we work as a team, how we hold others accountable, how we create a successful team culture–that’s applicable to any kind of engineering work that we’ll be doing later on. I think that’s why companies look for individuals who do have these kinds of experiences because it is transferable.
I noticed that Eco Car has a ton of different sponsors like Shell, 3M, and Honda. How does that affect what you’re making? How do you get all of these different companies on board with the project?
Shell is our largest corporate sponsor. We get a lot of support from them because they run the competition that we go to. We get help from them to ship our car or to cover some of the costs of competing. Another big source of funding is the University of Alberta and the Faculty of Engineering specifically–they give us a specific amount of funding every year. It does impact the project in that we [have to be] open to all students, but that’s something our team does anyway. We accept not only engineering students, but any students. Some of our students don’t even go to U of A. [Our members] don’t even have to be students--it can be literally anyone who’s interested.
We do a lot of outreach within our university, so I’d say we definitely have quite a good relationship between our faculty and our project. They help us out quite a lot, especially with reaching out to media, and we get a lot of help from faculty advisors.
For some of the other sponsors we have, a lot of our sponsorships come from us reaching out to a company [asking if they can] manufacture our aeroshell, or something like that, and ask if they can offer us a discount. We’d say, “We’re a student group, and we’re interested in something that you have to offer, could you give us a discount?” A lot of our sponsorship comes from that–from getting a reduced price in exchange for getting their logo on the car, and us writing a testimonial on their website. It depends for every sponsor and what they’re looking for and what we’re looking for.
Do you think that taking part in outreach changes the way you approach the making of the Eco Car?
Our team has grown, and probably doubled in size, since I joined just over two years ago, [which allows us to do more events]. Even when the team just started, we still participated in these events to show the public the cool projects that university students are doing. We participated in Open House, and some other engineering events on campus, but I think recently our team has really encompassed that learning goal.
Documentation has become one thing we’re really pushing for because as a university group we have a high turnover rate. Keeping everything that we’ve learned within the team is something that really helps us build upon past years’ successes and failures. We’re doing a lot more research, and testing, and expanding the scope of our project. It’s also just educating our members more.