Driving Innovation

A interdisciplinary competition where student teams come up with a prototype that improves the Camaro’s fuel efficiency and lowers its environmental footprint while still maintaining its performance and appeal.
Driving Innovation
At the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 130 students are about to tear out the guts of a Chevy Camaro to see if they can turn it into a model of fuel efficiency while making sure it’s still a kick to drive. Not surprisingly, most of these tinkerers are engineering students, but a significant number also are pursuing business degrees.

They’re not the only U.S. students attempting to remake a muscle car as a hybrid. Alabama is one of 16 universities participating in the EcoCAR 3 challenge, the latest iteration of the Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition that was first launched by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1987. The current competition is sponsored by the DOE and General Motors and managed by Argonne National Laboratory.

Student teams have four years—from 2014 to 2018—to come up with a prototype that improves the Camaro’s fuel efficiency and lowers its environmental footprint while still maintaining its performance and appeal. Throughout the year, the school teams are scored on a number of deliverables, which include reports and papers; they face off annually in a year-end competition.

Every school will field a team of students with a different mix of backgrounds, but in Alabama, the emphasis is on interdisciplinary skills, including engineering, business, marketing, public relations, and advertising. In fact, about a quarter of the EcoCAR students are from the Culverhouse College of Commerce’s STEM Path to the MBA program. That means they’re pursuing engineering degrees while taking STEM Business Honors courses and preparing for their MBA coursework. The team leader is project manager Kaylie Crosby, a mechanical engineering undergrad in the STEM MBA program. In addition, two of the five members of the faculty leadership team are marketing professors who teach in the STEM MBA program.

Having a multidisciplinary team “allows us to build relationships across campus and approach the project from unique and creative angles,” says Robert Morgan, Phifer Fellow and professor of marketing, as well as the director of Culverhouse’s STEM Path to the MBA program. Business-minded students are essential, he says, because the project is run like a business. “While the technical challenges are large, so are the project management, communications, and leadership challenges. The team’s diversity reflects what you would find in a high-tech business.”

Because the EcoCAR challenge is a four-year initiative, students continuously rotate on and off teams. This means that recruiting is a year-round effort, says Morgan, and the school constantly tracks when leaders will need to be replaced. “Our goal is to have the replacement shadow the current leader for at least a semester before moving into the position,” says Morgan. “In addition, we recently established a human resources team that will assist with recruiting, knowledge transfer, and succession planning.”

While the challenge is a monumental effort, Morgan says the payoffs are equally immense. “The work requires cooperation from a large number of students from diverse educational backgrounds, and they learn early on about the contributions these disparate disciplines make to the organization,” says Morgan. “The organizers make it as close to a ‘real-world’ experience as it can be.”