It’s electric: UVa students at transportation’s cutting edge


Kurt Walters

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Walk into the decommissioned nuclear reactor room at the University of Virginia and you’ll see students pushing toward a new kind of energy future — one in which cars can be powered by electricity from any energy source, including wind, solar, nuclear, or fossil fuels.

UVa Ride Forward students (L to R): Olivia Jeffers (third-year; McLean, VA), Kyle Smalkowski (third-year; Richmond, VA), Jason Rowe (fourth-year; Waynesboro, VA), and Brian Chaldares (fourth-year; Waynesboro, VA).  The 2004 Subaru Legacy is being converted for David Slutzky.

Since its founding in 2008, the RideForward program has given UVa students the opportunity to convert conventional gasoline-powered cars into vehicles that run on electricity alone.

Professor Jim Durand, the program’s founder and faculty adviser, said his inspiration for the group came from the recent recession, which saw record-setting gas prices on top of the severe financial crisis.

“We were shipping nearly $350 billion abroad each year for our fuel and it just seemed like there had to be something we could do [at UVa],” Durand said.

After three years, RideForward now boasts 55 student members and three advising professors. In addition to three current electric vehicle (EV) conversion projects, RideForward has groups focusing on solar race car development, business and policy, and creating an infrastructure of EV charging stations.

“RideForward has really been shaping up over the last couple of years,” said RideForward president Olivia Jeffers, a third-year civil engineering student.

Conversions are a complicated undertaking, but students said that they have cut in half the amount of time required to convert a car compared with a year and a half ago.

In each conversion, students must first remove the existing engine, fuel tank and other gasoline-specific components. They must then decide where to locate the new electric motor, batteries and motor controller, order the parts, and install them.

Finally they test and retest to verify that each component — including original auxiliary parts such as power windows — is able to send the correct information or power to other parts of the car.

Hands-on learning

UVa shut down its nuclear research reactor in 1998 and turned the building over to a variety of student engineering projects. Currently, three vehicles in various stages of conversion are housed in RideForward’s reactor room-turned-garage.

Electric motor in converted 2004 Subaru Legacy

The first, a 2004 Subaru Legacy station wagon for UVa professor and electric vehicle enthusiast David Slutzky, is already drivable. It is now in the final debugging phase.

The shop also holds a 1993 Subaru Legacy that will become the County of Albemarle’s first all-electric car and a 1999 Jeep Cherokee donated by a RideForward parent who hopes to let their student complete an EV conversion before graduating this spring.

Most cars that RideForward converts are able to go 30 to 35 miles on a single charge, which is enough for the typical commuter to get to work.

Each car has separate student-led teams for the vehicle’s drivetrain, batteries and auxiliary components such as air conditioning. While everything from design to installation is managed by students, members said they depend heavily on Durand, who has the final say on project decisions.

“I don’t know where we’d be without Dr. Durand,” said Jason Rowe, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and leader of the Jeep drivetrain team. “He stops us from doing stupid stuff,” added Jeffers.

Durand and the students alike said they believe the hands-on experience at RideForward produces better engineers.

“The more real-world applications you can apply your knowledge to, the more value you can see in your education,” Rowe said.

“Part of a much larger movement”

Andy Lowe, Albemarle County’s environmental compliance manager, said the county anticipates fuel cost savings after adding the RideForward-converted Subaru to its fleet.

The county paid $9,000 for the conversion from an energy-related block grant that it received from the 2009 federal stimulus. RideForward supplemented the county’s payment with outside funds to cover additional costs.

“It certainly was a pilot project — an experiment,” Lowe said. “But the overall experience and knowledge gained by converting these vehicles … five to 10 years out will make [electric vehicle production] more accessible for educational facilities and automotive facilities. … It’s part of a much larger movement.”

UVa commissioned the program’s first two conversions, a Honda Accord and Ford Ranger pickup truck, although they require reworking due to coming safety regulations and damage to one vehicle.

EVs have garnered significant attention in the past year with the debut of the Nissan LEAF, the first mainstream all-electric car, and the Chevrolet Volt, a “range extended” hybrid-electric vehicle that runs on electricity but can generate power from gasoline if charging stations are not nearby.

“I think it’s going to be a very prevalent industry in a few years,” said third-year student Kyle Smalkowski.

Smalkowski added that new electric vehicles can be quite expensive. Conversion of used cars, though, could become a way for “everyday, middle-class Americans” to own an electric car.

Brian Chaldares (fourth-year; Waynesboro, VA) stands with machine tool, which is used to cut parts so that they fit together properly

In the meantime, the cost of parts for converting a car from gasoline to electric, while falling, remains expensive at more than $15,000.

RideForward is focused on bringing down the price of the electric motor and motor controller. Currently, the two cost around $5,000, but Durand said that designing motors specifically for mass production could reduce that cost significantly.

Cost and benefits

Aside from the opportunity to put their education to a technical challenge, many members of RideForward are motivated by concerns about public health and environmental quality. Smalkowski, for instance, said he has “always been interested in sustainable transportation and alternative energy” and hopes to eventually work in the solar power industry.

Durand said his primary selling point is that EVs cut street-level pollution, an “enormous advantage” for an urban area like Charlottesville, which was recently named one of America’s 25 smoggiest small metropolitan areas.

However, if the electricity is produced by burning other fossil fuels, this may simply displace pollution to areas surrounding power plants. Similarly, while EVs may cut America’s imports of foreign oil, their batteries rely on metals from overseas.

Smalkowski asked, “Are we shifting our dependency [from oil] to African lithium and Chinese rare earth metals?”

Jeffers emphasized the upside of EVs’ efficient energy usage and said that their long-term potential is to open the possibility of transportation powered by clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind.

Durand said it is a privilege to help the students and advance their careers. Two alumni of the program have gone on to jobs at EV manufacturers Tesla and Edison2, and a third is working on conventional cars with Honda.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the students and that’s growing,” Durand said. “They appreciate the opportunity to make a difference.”