McMaster students standing in front of EcoCar
The University of Waterloo, along with McMaster University will be the only two Canadian universities competing in the four-year North American EcoCar EV challenge. Photo: Jaden Yoo

A pair of Canadian universities have been selected to participate in the four-year EcoCar EV challenge, where they will be engineering and optimizing the features of a Cadillac Lyriq

Two groups of Canadian students — one from the University of Waterloo and one from McMaster University — are competing in a challenge to engineer next-generation battery electric and autonomous vehicles over the next four years.

The EcoCar Challenge is a recurring Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition (AVTC), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, MathWorks and General Motors (GM).

But, for the first time ever, the test car is an electric vehicle. GM is providing each team with a 2023 Cadillac Lyriq to enhance over the next four years.

“The AVTC competition itself has always been at the forefront of achieving new vehicle technologies,” says Jaden Yoo, project manager for the University of Waterloo EcoCar Team in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

“The competition overall really prepares engineering students to be the future engineers, ready for actual work experience.”

In total, 15 universities across North America are participating in the competition that kicked off in September.

A competitive field

Teams selected to take part in the AVTC competition were required to submit a proposal to the organizers, detailing the amount of support their university will be able to provide the teams and the current organizational structure of the teams.

In addition to Waterloo and McMaster, the other US-based universities participating in the challenge are:

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University/ Bethune-Cookman University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Mississippi State University
  • Ohio State University / Wilberforce University
  • University of Alabama
  • University of California, Riverside
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Virginia Tech
  • West Virginia University

The teams have four years to design, build and demonstrate advanced propulsion system capabilities for the Lyriq and enhance its connected and autonomous vehicle technologies.

“The first year is all about preparing and setting the baseline for the actual hands-on experience and hands-on integration for the vehicle,” explains Yoo.

“The second year is where we receive the Cadillac Lyriq. We do all the integration where we strip down the car, we strip down the components and we put our own designed powertrains and the different features that we want to develop into the car.”

Year three is the refinement year, where teams will increase the efficiency of the vehicles and develop the Level 2 autonomy algorithm. By the end of year four, the vehicle must be running and capable of performing all its features.

The final product must be energy efficient, meet the decarbonization need of the automotive industry and include “customer-pleasing features”, says the competition press release.

The competition will culminate in an Over the Road event, where teams will test drive the vehicles from GM’s testing facility in Yuma to Phoenix, Arizona to prove the vehicle’s reliability and functions.

Prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion

As part of the challenge, teams will not only focus on the technical goals to help decarbonize the transportation sector, but are encouraged to address equity, diversity and inclusion (DEI) challenges in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and higher education.

More than US$6 million from the competition organizers will be distributed to the universities taking part in the competition. The funds are to be used to support the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students and faculty and contribute to creating a more diverse North American EV talent pool.

“To improve diversity in STEM and higher education, diversity, equity and inclusion will be incorporated into all areas of the competition,” reads the press release.

“Teams will be challenged to identify and address specific equity and electrification issues in mobility through the application of innovative hardware and software solutions, outreach to underserved communities and underrepresented youth to increase awareness about advanced mobility and recruit underrepresented minorities into STEM fields.”

Twenty-five per cent of each team’s overall competition score is related to how well they incorporate DEI actions in their teams, says Yoo. The remaining 75 per cent of the score will go towards the technical engineering of the vehicle.

“This competition really reflects the changing vehicle market and there are two reasons why this is a big deal,” says Jennifer Granholm, United States Secretary of Energy in a video announcing the EcoCar EV Challenge. 

“First, we just need more EVs to overcome the climate crisis. The second reason (perhaps even a more important reason) is that this EcoCar Challenge is going to help us build a workforce around this soon-to-skyrocket EV market that’s diverse and that is inclusive.”

Each team will include talent with multi-disciplinary engineering skill sets, such as mechanical, electrical, computer and software engineering. They will also include students from different educational backgrounds in communications, public relations, business and project management to give students real-world experience similar to working in the automotive industry. 

“The competition really gives us that opportunity to go forward. It gets you prepared for the real-world automobile industry” says Yoo. “It’s about 90 people — engineers, accountants, business, DEI people — working together for one goal: to succeed in the competition. And create a environment where students come and have fun and also work on the car and feel included.”

Past competition experience

Both the universities of Waterloo and McMaster have experience participating in previous AVTC competitions.

Yoo believes his team’s past experience in the EcoCar challenges will give them an upper hand during this competition instalment — which is the first time teams will be competing using a purpose-built electric vehicle.

As part of the 2018-2022 EcoCar Mobility Challenge, the University of Waterloo outfitted a gas-powered 2019 Chevrolet Blazer with a hybrid-electric powertrain and equipped it with connected and automated vehicle technology to enable adaptive cruise control and autonomous emergency braking functionality.

“To an extent, I think it’s easier to work with an EV than the combustion engine because there’s less mechanical integration work compared to the combustion engines,” says Yoo. “The key for this competition will be to effectively develop an electric vehicle and maximize the efficiency out of different powertrain components.”

Meanwhile, McMaster University has been participating in the EcoCar competition series for the past three instalments and has received awards including the Siemens PLM Software Excellence Award (2018) and DEI in Engineering award from the U.S. Department of Energy (2021).

“The announcement that McMaster University will continue in the EcoCAR EV Challenge means that I can continue to take the skills and knowledge I gain through my engineering degree and apply it to a hands-on project that I am very passionate about,” said Carolyn Visser, mechanical engineering student and co-mechanical team lead with the current McMaster EcoCAR Mobility Challenge team in a press statement.

“What I am most excited about in the upcoming four-year competition is starting from a stock car and creating an electric vehicle that is unique to our team. As well as showcasing our design to different teams and sponsors across North America.”

Full details on the EcoCar competition can be found here.

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