After spending three years redesigning a Chevrolet Malibu, making it lighter and more fuel-efficient without sacrificing speed, a group of Penn State University students are sending the vehicle to Michigan where it will vie for top honors in a 12-day collegiate automotive engineering competition in June.
"A lot of us call it the Bu, short for Malibu," said 20-year-old Benjamin Sattler, a rising junior from Collegeville. "It is an endearing term. When you put that much work into it, you grow a little attached."
Sattler, who graduated from Methacton High School in 2012, is one of more than 50 PSU students dedicating at least 10 hours a week to overhaul a General Motors-donated 2013 Malibu into a hybrid vehicle that reduces environmental impact without compromising performance, safety and consumer preferences for the EcoCAR 2 competition.
Argonne National Laboratory manages the three-year competition, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and GM.
Bu will face off against cars reengineered by 14 other universities including Ohio State University, a long-time football rival.
"We will compete against each other in various dynamic events, like acceleration, fuel economy, handling and emissions," said Gary Neal, a PSU engineering professor and the vehicle team’s faculty advisor.
The PSU team, made up of mostly engineering students like Sattler, spent the past year refining the changes made to the car’s systems ahead of last year’s competition, where Bu was named best in acceleration, braking and consumer acceptability.
"This year’s competition is totally different," said Chris Golecki, team leader and graduate student in mechanical engineering. "We focused on bringing the vehicle to the next level, including implementing completely new control strategies, designing new systems to reduce weight, and fine tuning drive qualities that consumers want in a vehicle."
Reducing the vehicle's weight is one of many factors evaluated during the competition. The team lightened the car's exhaust by 17 pounds, wheels by 36 pounds and fuel tank by 25 pounds.
Sattler said the group was refining software in the last few weeks to improve acceleration.
“We can test different components without actually testing the vehicle,” he described. “Our computer screen has our gauge cluster -- speed, engine temperature. So then we can test our algorithms before we put it into the vehicle.”
Without even getting behind the wheel, Sattler simulated driving the team’s navy blue and white vehicle at nearly 115 miles per hour.
“The automotive sector is really pushing modeling and simulation,” Neal said. “That allows engineers to basically model and simulate the vehicle in software using a computer without ever actually getting their hands on hardware.”
Penn State President Eric Barron will be giving Bu and the team a send-off Thursday ahead of the 12-day competition that begins June 1 in Milford, Mich. and then heads to Washington for a final round of judging by industry experts.
While Neal warns that reliability can often be a challenge for a student-run prototype car, he and Sattler have their fingers crossed Bu will run as well during the competition as it has for the past few weeks.
“It should be pretty much production ready,” Sattler said. “A very refined vehicle that is actually enjoyable to drive in, be in and look at.”
Awards will be announced June 12.