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Ethanol, part of the winning strategy

I can't help but think that, perhaps someday, the winning vehicle designs of the Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions can be mass produced and sold to consumers like you and me.
By Holly Jessen | July 21, 2014

I first wrote about the EcoCAR Challenge back in 2011. The program really caught my attention. Since then, I pay special attention to the yearly winners, especially if the team utilizes E85 as part of the vehicle design. I think it’s pretty cool the way more than one team has harnessed ethanol along with other technologies to snag the win.

Last month, an Ohio State Univeristy team won with a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu with energy storage, electric drive and ethanol (E85) fueled engine technology. Intrigued, I decided to dig a little bit deeper into just how often ethanol has been part of the winning strategy. As it turns out, I learned quite a few interesting facts I thought I’d share here in my blog.

The EcoCAR Challenge is the contest name I’m familiar with. No wonder, since that’s been the contest theme for more than half a decade. Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions have been held for the last 25 years with various contest focuses, including the Methanol Marathon from 1988 to 1990, the Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge from 1990 to 1993, the HEV Challenge from 1992 to 1995, the Propane Vehicle Challenge from 1995 to 1997, the FutureCar Challenge from 1995 to 1999, the Ethanol Vehicle challenge from 1997 to 1999, FutureTruck from 1999 to 2004 and Challenge X from 2004 to 2008. The EcoCAR competitions started out in 2008 with the NeXt Challenge and then transitioned to EcoCAR 2: Plugging into the Future in 2011.

Here’s another fun fact. Seventy-five percent of the students that participate in the vehicle design completion end up with jobs in the automotive industry. It’s not just fun. It’s not just hands on learning. It’s not just a chance to get one of those cool matching team t-shirts. It actually helps launch careers.

Since the first AVTC was held in 1988, 91 universities, 531 individual university teams and 16,000 students have participated. According to the website, the goal is to “stimulate the development of advanced propulsion and alternative fuel technologies and provide the training ground for the next generation of automotive engineers.” You can learn more in this six minute video about the history of the competitions. 

In my search for more information about the teams that utilized ethanol, I contacted Kimberly DeClark, the AVTC communication and logistics manager with Argonne National Laboratory, for more information. Here’s the rundown of what she sent me. Ethanol was part of the winning strategy from 1997 to 2000, when the contest focus was the Ethanol Vehicle Challenge. In 2005 a hybrid electric E85 vehicle took first place of Challenge X. Hybrid electric and E85 powered vehicles have dominated the EcoCAR competitions, taking top honors in 2008 and 2010 through this year. The only year first place in EcoCAR didn’t go to an E85 vehicle was in 2009, when a biodiesel design won.

And, don’t think that the only reason that ethanol has been part of the winning strategy every year of EcoCAR 2 is because all the teams paired plug-in technology, part of the contest theme, with E85. The second place winner of this year’s contest also used E85 but the third place winner was a hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the years that a non-ethanol design triumphed, during the last 15 years of the competition. Winners of the FutureTruck contest include diesel designs in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and a reformulated gasoline design in 2001. The Challenge X winners were a fuel cell design in 2004 and biodiesel designs in 2006 and 2007.   

Just in case you are counting, that’s 10 ethanol-related wins and nine non-ethanol wins since 1997. Pretty impressive.