HEV Engineering Goes Over-the-Road

By Jennifer Donovan

Advanced powertrain lab rolls on 18 wheels

Eric Foote had been working in automotive emissions for seventeen years when the auto industry’s economic meltdown caught up with him. Laid off from AVL, a giant powertrain systems developer, Foote had been out of work for eight months when he heard about Michigan Tech’s course in hybrid electric vehicle engineering. The University had partnered with General Motors and the Engineering Society of Detroit to offer the free course to displaced engineers in the Detroit area.

Foote signed up in the spring of 2010. Now he is employed as a correlation engineer at Ford Motor Company, a job he doubts he could have gotten without the hybrid electric vehicle training.

“Hybrid electric vehicles are the latest technology, and in my field—emissions—I really needed to understand the emissions evaluation aspects of hybrid electrics,” Foote explains.

The course was a precursor of Michigan Tech’s pioneering program in hybrid electric vehicle engineering. One of the first of its kind in the nation, Tech’s HEV program is funded by a $3 million US Department of Energy grant and $750,000 of in-kind contributions from industry sponsors and partners. It’s offered on campus, online, and—thanks to the showpiece of the program—on the road.

That showpiece is a huge, handsome mobile lab and classroom that enables the University to take hands-on hybrid electric vehicle education right to working and displaced engineers, company employees, students, and communities, wherever they may be.

Designed and built at Michigan Tech by an interdisciplinary team of engineering students under the industry-savvy guidance of Research Engineer Jeremy Worm, the mobile HEV lab is housed in an expandable, double-wide trailer. It’s pulled by a class 8 diesel semi with a Detroit Diesel DD15 engine, the latest in heavy-duty diesel technology. The semi tractor was provided by Detroit Diesel on a no-charge, ten-year consignment.

The mobile lab is wi-fi accessible throughout, and everything inside is as mobile as the trailer itself, with desks, chairs, and workspaces that can be reconfigured to suit. The bunk space for an over-the-road driver is being converted to a high-tech office, where the lab’s road team of four can work when they aren’t teaching or driving.

Another unique feature is two powertrain “hardware-in-the-loop” test cells, a cutting-edge developmental tool that enables students to learn how the HEV components work, including the batteries, engines, electric motors, and power electronics. Then, using the test cells, they can experiment with how every part of the system reacts to changes in any other part.

“The powertrain test cell sits in the trailer and thinks it’s on the road,” Worm explains. “Students can change gears, change batteries, change engines, change hardware and software of every kind, and see what effect it has on fuel economy, emissions, top speed, and cost.”

Reconfigure and go figure

Then they get to test their solutions in another unique component of the mobile lab, a configurable hybrid electric vehicle. Built by students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Mechanical Engineering–Engineering Mechanics, the heart of the configurable HEV is a Kohler industrial engine on a dune-buggy frame. Everything on it—rear axle, engine controls, motor, battery—can be changed and changed quickly. “We can switch out gears in three minutes, something that would take three days on a regular vehicle in a shop,” says Worm.

And finally, after the students have evaluated up to 14,000 possible combinations through testing or simulation, they prepare their vehicle for final validation testing. They also get to experience the state-of-the-art in three four-wheel gifts from General Motors: a real, live Chevy Malibu hybrid, a Saturn Vue, and a Chevy Volt. The HEV students drive them on public roads and compare the effects of various parameters on fuel economy and drivability.

Students at Michigan Tech are already using the mobile lab in half a dozen courses, part of the HEV/engineering sustainable transportation curriculum. The program includes classes selected by the Michigan Academy of Green Mobility for training automotive engineers, a certificate program, and a professional master’s degree.

Chris Morgan, who graduated from Tech last spring with an MS in Mechanical Engineering, credits the HEV courses he took with helping him land his job in hybrid electric vehicle software and calibration at GM.

“This technology is driving many of the major fuel efficiency improvements in vehicle power systems,” says Morgan. “It is the leading edge of engineering in the automotive world.” Auto manufacturers are looking for engineers with knowledge of hybrid electric vehicles, because HEV education is new to mechanical engineering programs, he adds.

HEV to the people

The mobile lab will be on the road this spring. Worm and his colleagues are developing HEV short courses for engineers at automotive companies and agencies like TARDEC, the US Army’s tank research center. They are also partnering with companies such as Wineman Technologies and National Instruments, whose substantial gifts made the lab possible, to use the mobile lab to conduct educational programs for the public and schoolchildren. They hope to join the Michigan Tech Mind Trekkers on the National Mall in Washington, DC, at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in April.

“A lot of people are teaching a short course in hybrid electric vehicles here, a university class there,” Worm says, “but this is the first effort we know of to pull it all together into a hands-on curriculum equally accessible to students on campus and far away, filled with technology that is constantly reinventing itself, that also incorporates a long arm of outreach to the public who will drive these vehicles and the schoolchildren who will design and build them down the road. That’s why the Department of Energy is looking to Michigan Tech to build a model for the nation.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.