Xconomy Editor Successfully Avoids Wrecking Electric Car. Entire World Rejoices.

3/15/11Follow @xconomy

Who Killed The Electric Car? Hopefully not me.

As I surveyed the commotion at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor Monday morning, I couldn’t help but think of that documentary for a couple of reasons.

One, I was just about to test drive one of the next-generation electric cars developed by college students across North America. Let’s just say my driving skills are…uh…a little suspect and I didn’t want to wreck some poor kid’s research project, at least not before it got graded.

Secondly, I appreciated the irony of the moment. Released in 2006, Who Killed The Electric Car? argued that the federal government had conspired with auto manufacturers and oil companies to derail the nascent battery-powered electric car industry.

Five years later, two of those alleged conspirators have joined forces to sponsor a three-year competition for American and Canadian college students to create the very cars they supposedly plotted to destroy. General Motors, based in Detroit, provided vehicles and cash to the students while the EPA and the U.S. Energy Department offered research, technical, and logistical help.

Things have sure changed since 2006. Faced with rising oil prices and political instability in the Middle East, President Obama has made developing electric cars a centerpiece of his national energy strategy.

“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” Obama told Congress during his State of the Union address in January.

But more importantly, electric cars have leap frogged from novelty to reality. Judging from the buzz surrounding the Ford Focus and Chevy Volt, consumers today actually want to buy American-produced electric cars.

Which is why GM invested so heavily in this EcoCAR competition, says Kent Helfrich, the company’s executive director of electronics integration & software. GM needs to develop a workforce with the necessary technical skills and engineering talent to design those electric cars promised by Obama.

“We are going to hire as many as we can,” Helfrich says, referring to the students in the competition. “These kids are the best of the best.”

Technically, the 16 student teams were required to design cars that reduce petroleum usage, boost energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gases, and maintain consumer acceptability in performance, safety, and utility. That’s a tall order and, judging from what I saw, the students chose to focus more on the first three criteria.

Take Michigan Technological University’s entry. The team, led by Jason Socha, designed a hybrid, plug-in electric car that contains an E-85 powered gasoline engine and not one, not two, but three electric motors. One of those electric motors is located in back, which helps the car to generate extra electric charges by exploiting the rear brakes, Socha explains.

But that electric motor occupies the entire rear of the hatchback, which would make it hard for consumers to store those twenty packs of bottled waters they just bought at Costco.

At least Michigan Tech’s car had room for backseat passengers. The car I test drove, designed by University of Ontario Institute of Technology, was the only 100 percent electric car in the competition.

Probably a good reason for that. The car’s batteries occupied about 75 percent of the vehicle, leaving room for only the driver and front side passenger. The team, though, plans to convert the design into a more consumer-friendly model.

The team chose a full electric design because Canada has more developed clean energy infrastructure to recharge such a car, says team leader Gavin Clark.

The kids have some work to do. Though the engine ran silent, the bulky battery shook and rattled as I drove over the pot holed road, nearly drowning out our conversation.

While the car boasts a range of 250 miles at 60 miles per hour, I doubted I could last long. The ride felt jagged and sluggish—and not just because of my bad driving.

The car could go as fast as 80 mph and Clark encouraged me to floor it. Um…thanks but no thanks. The road was curvy and I’m not going to risk this kid’s hard work, not to mention his life.

I stop the car before we returned to the crowded parking lot.

“Switch places,” I instructed Clark. “I don’t want to wreck your car.”

This is one reporter who’s not going to kill the electric car today.

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