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College students re-engineer the Chevy Malibu in eco-challenge

Thursday - 6/12/2014, 5:21pm  ET

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The University of Tennessee sports organge hoses. Fifteen teams from colleges and universities across North America are taking part in the EcoCar2 challenge. And they parked, hoods up for inspection, at L'Enfant Plaza's promenade Thursday. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

WASHINGTON - For the past three years, teams of college students have been working on making D.C.- area workers' commutes more bearable.

No, they can't eliminate gridlock. But they can put drivers behind the wheel of a more fuel-efficient, eco-friendlier and comfortable car.

At least that's the goal of the EcoCar2 Challenge, co-sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

Fifteen teams from colleges and universities across North America are taking part in the EcoCar2 challenge. And they parked, hoods up for inspection, at L'Enfant Plaza's promenade Thursday.

So what happens when a bunch of college students are handed a 2013 Chevy Malibu and told to get to work?

Lucas Shultz, who was the business manager for the Virginia Tech team, introduced reporters to "Mary the Malibu" and her high-voltage battery system.

"If you owned Mary the Malibu, you would be able to get to and from work every day without burning any gasoline," Shultz says.

Shultz says that's based on the average commute. So he says, a drier could travel on electric power exclusively for 40 miles. After that point, "You'll be burning gas, but you'll be doing it much more efficiently" than in a conventional car.

Can the Virginia Tech team make commutes less painful?

"I cannot promise that," Shultz says. But he promises that the drive would be more enjoyable thanks to an infotainment center.

But it's not just about music and entertainment.Drivers can see how much charge is left in the battery and the team reconfigured the climate-control so that both drivers and passengers can adjust to the controls to their liking.

Benjamin Sattler with the Penn State team made the pitch for the school's EcoCar2 vehicle, which as he explained, has a small engine.

"Because it's such a small engine, it runs really efficiently." But Sattler says that doesn't mean you'll lose pick-up.

Sattler says conventional engines have something called a torque curve, which means power can vary.

"But with an electric motor, that torque curve is a flat line, so you have all your torque all the time. So that means if you floor it, going zero miles an hour, you get the same amount of power" as you would in a conventional engine going at 30 to 40 miles an hour.

The teams also checked out eachother's handiwork.

Mississippi State University team member Trent Workman makes some adjustments to the school's Chevy Malibu. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Sattler conceded the Virginia Tech team had a very sophisticated center console.

Describing the Penn State vehicle's display, Sattler said: "We did add a few gauges and displays. We added an eco-meter" so you could see how energy efficient your trip actually is.

Sattler says while displays are important to drivers, the Penn State team wanted to make sure that didn't interfere with safety.

"Ours is a fairly small screen," Sattler said. "We put the state of charge' display in the overhead console right above the rearview mirror so you can just glance up and look at it, but still keep your eyes on the road."

WTOP's Kate Ryan rode in the Ohio State University vehicle. The pilot was second-year grad student Matt Yard, who was most proud of the vehicle's power.

"I think I really like the way that when you press the pedal, you immediately get that acceleration," Yard said.

And it's a very quiet ride. There was just a hint of white noise as Yard drove past the EcoCar2 challenge site.

Yard, a Frederick, Maryland native, said he's sympathetic to drivers with agonizingly long commutes. So his team added some entertainment apps like Pandora to the center console. But he says the features aim to keep driver distraction to a minimum.

"When the vehicle's actually moving, you can't play games on the tablet. You can only really mess with the music so you're not distracted while the vehicle's moving."

Accommodating a large battery pack that provides energy for long stretches of time was the biggest challenge for the Ohio State team.

"It's about 600 pounds and it takes up a lot of the trunk space," he said. "You can still fit your golf clubs in your trunk, or other items that you'd want to take with you on a normal trip."

Each team has been working on their vehicle for three years and despite the competition, the teams are gracious in sizing up their rivals.

"The University of Washington has come with a very well-put together vehicle and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has also been running really well in the competition," Yard said.

Yard's colleague on the Ohio State team, Katherine Bovee, adds "We've definitely looked at other cars. We have a tremendous amount of respect for the other teams. I think everyone looks really good."

The top prize is worth $100,000 in cash prizes. The winners will be announced Friday.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @kateryanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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