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Students work day and night to make 100 mpg car a reality

By summer's end, what looks like several pieces of a car on the floor of Upson Hall's GM Laboratory will become a full-size, fuel-efficient, plug-in hybrid vehicle.

A group of Cornell students are working day and night to make that happen. They're part of Cornell's 100+ MPG Team, participating in the international Progressive Automotive X Prize Competition to design, build and race a car that gets the equivalent of 100 miles to the gallon. The winners will share a $10 million prize.

About 15 students, including team leader Matt Robison '10, are staying in Ithaca over the summer to hit a Sept. 1 goal of getting the car, named Redshift, built and running for on-road testing. Just a few weeks ago, they submitted a final report to Automotive X Prize organizers that details the design of their competition vehicle, and a plan showing the feasibility of manufacturing and selling 10,000 units of the car in its final, marketable form -- a key component of the competition. By Aug. 20, the Cornell team will receive word whether their written report has been accepted -- then off to the races they go in 2010.

The X Prize Foundation announced in April its list of 111 teams accepted into the contest. The Cornell entry will be judged in the mainstream class, meaning the car must meet such specifications as seating at least four people, having four wheels and performing 0-60 mph acceleration in 15 seconds. The alternative class has fewer design constraints, with no requirements for number of wheels, and having to seat only two passengers.

Only three university teams -- Cornell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Western Washington University -- are part of the X Prize challenge, and only MIT will be competing against Cornell in the mainstream class.

The Cornell team, which consists of roughly 80 students and several faculty members across many colleges and disciplines, has been working toward the competition since 2007. With a budget of about $100,000 raised through corporate and individual sponsors, as well as money from Cornell, the team has assembled all the car's major parts. These include a small diesel engine shipped from Germany, the chassis of a Subaru Sambar, the body of a Honda Civic, and a lithium-ion battery system donated by a Taiwanese company, Chang's Ascending Energy.

The car is a plug-in hybrid with a completely electrical drive train, powered by the battery pack that can be charged from a wall outlet or by a generator in the car. This is how the car differs from hybrid cars on the market today, such as the Toyota Prius.

"In hybrid cars today, it's mainly the gas or diesel engine that propels the wheels," explained Andrew Gifft '09, who manages the car's electrical engineering team. "With ours, there is no connection between the diesel engine and the wheels. It's all electricity that spins the wheels." The closest comparison to marketed cars today is the Chevrolet Volt.

Redshift's design is narrow and sleek to maximize aerodynamic capability. It will also have control software to make the engine run at peak efficiency -- for example, keeping the car's speed below 90 miles per hour.

"When you step on the accelerator, it will have a good pep to it so you're not feeling like a Flintstone car, but we're not going to let you burn through energy and waste it," Robison said. "We want the generator to always run in its optimal region."

Like with any complicated project, the team is constrained by time and money. But they have approached the project from a systems engineering point of view, looking at every aspect of management, work flow and design with the big picture in mind. This may be an advantage for Cornell, said Al George, the J.F. Carr Professor of Mechanical Engineering, a team co-adviser with John Callister, senior lecturer and the Harvey Kinzelberg Director of Entrepreneurship in Engineering.

"The overall system is much more important than having good individual bits," George said.

The high-profile nature of the competition naturally stirs public curiosity. One of the team's sponsors, Popular Mechanics, is following its progress in a series of articles. Cornell will also have the car for public viewing at the New York State Fair, Aug. 27-Sept. 7, with half its body panels attached so people can see inside it.

And, of course, the car will be painted Cornell red.

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander