A New Type Of American Car

Jul 2, 2009

"Today will mark the end of an old GM, and the beginning of a new GM. A new GM that could produce the high-quality, safe, and fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow," said Obama.

Three weeks ago President Obama outlined his plan to transform the auto industry. The announcement spurred reactions across the country with people weighing the industry's uncertain future. Today, the announcement continues to generate noise - but not all of it is talk.

[Sound of engines running]

At the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University, students train to become the next generation of American automakers. One of their mentors is Giorgio Rizzoni, who's been the director of the Research Center since 1996. He says the technology developed here might make it on American highways within 5 years.

"Today the students use the latest technology, the most advanced Lithium ion batteries. The vehicle that will have been designed and implemented by our team is actually going to be very, very close to what a 2012 to 2015 production vehicle will look like," says Rizzoni.

Judging by a recent award, he may be right. Just this month, the team won the first leg of a three-part competition called the EcoCAR Challenge. The OSU engineers were up against 16 other teams from the US and Canada competing for the best overall design for a fuel-efficient vehicle.

Beth Bezaire is a team leader for the OSU EcoCAR. She describes how combining an electric motor with a fuel engine is the basis for their winning design.

"We have a large battery packet so that we can store enough energy on a single charge for 30 to 40 miles of driving. The purpose of the engine is to extend the range of the vehicle so that it could continue to drive even after the amount of charge in the batteries reaches its minimum threshold," says Bezaire.

A vehicle that has both an engine and an electrical motor is known as an Extended Range Electric Vehicle. A key consideration in this type of design is how the vehicle will switch back and forth between its electric motor and fuel engine. Bezaire explains that her team addresses this problem with a special type of transmission system.

"Our vehicle is unique in terms of we are designing our own twin clutch transmission. And the benefit of doing this is that you can gain efficiency depending on if you're driving in a city type operation or highway type operation," says Bezaire.

The first leg now complete, the 17 teams are preparing for the second leg of the competition. They're required to build their designs and insert them in a 2009 Saturn VUE. When the teams meet again next June, the EcoCAR judges will assess the 17 Saturns performing on the road.

The Saturns are courtesy of one of the event's main sponsors - General Motors. The company intends to donate the cars despite indications that it doesn't have a penny to spare. But GM's Cynthia Svestka explains that the EcoCAR challenge is not a run-of-the-mill competition. For the troubled automaker, it's an investment in research.

"GM remains committed to EcoCAR. It's very important to our industry that we create the resources that are able to further these types of advanced propulsions," says Svestka.

It's unclear whether the engineers participating in this competition will end up working for an American car company like Chrystler, or General Motors. But what is clear is that their designs are meant to inspire a new type of American car. Cynthia Svestka, from GM, explains why.

"It is critically important that we meet the emission challenges that we're facing. But we also need to make vehicles that consumers want to buy," says Svestka.