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Two electric cars join campus motor pool fleet

Jim Kloeppel , Science Editor
(217) 333-5491;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Someone poking under the hood of the motor pool's newly acquired blue Ford Escort could be in for a surprise. Instead of a gasoline engine, the vehicle has an electric motor connected to a bank of batteries.

The Escort is one of two research vehicles being recycled on campus. Originally donated to the university by car manufacturers and modified for student competitions, the cars have been turned over to the motor pool for use as service vehicles. Their research days are not yet over, however. Now they will gather data on what kinds of compromises drivers are willing to make to support alternative fuels and reduce gas consumption.

"We believe the future holds electric power for passenger cars," said Mike Hari, university fleet operations coordinator. "We want to take today’s cutting-edge technology and put it where people in everyday driving situations can test what is acceptable, and see what kinds of problems we have in using electric cars in campus traffic."

The Escort, a 1992 model, was modified by a student team and operated as a hybrid vehicle beginning in May 1993. The small gasoline engine has since been removed, so the car runs on electrical power only. The lead-acid batteries – similar to those used in emergency lighting – are easily charged at night and offer a cruising range of 25 miles.

"This is one of the most efficient electric vehicle systems ever put together," said Philip Krein, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the faculty advisers to the student teams that modified the cars. "The batteries are state-of-the-art, and the electrical system includes a special battery-charge equalization circuit that spreads the total electrical charge evenly among the individual battery cells, prolonging battery life."

The other car, a 1997 Dodge Intrepid, was modified by students for the 1998 FutureCar Challenge, a collegiate design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research to develop and demonstrate advanced fuel-efficient vehicles.

In their design, the students use a small diesel engine to turn a generator and produce electricity. Some of this electricity flows directly to a motor to turn the wheels. The rest is collected and stored in a battery pack, which supplies additional power for acceleration and climbing hills. The students also replaced trunk and hood panels with fiberglass to reduce weight, and added special bumpers to lower air resistance.

"We want to get more miles on these cars and see how they hold up over time," Krein said. "Severe weather is particularly hard on electric vehicles – battery performance goes down when it’s cold outside. So, vehicle performance during the winter is one of the things we will watch closely."

Climate control is another potential issue, Krein said. "There's not a lot of waste heat in these cars, so adequately heating the passenger compartment during winter could pose a problem."

To help answer questions about reliability and other issues, drivers will use a logbook to record distance traveled and note any problems with performance or creature comforts.

"This is a great way for us to gain more experience with electric vehicles in the campus community," Hari said. "It’s important that the motor pool stays up to speed and is prepared for the change to electric passenger vehicles when it comes. We believe that much of our experience with these vehicles will transfer to the next generation of electric vehicles, whether that turns out to be a breakthrough in battery technology or fuel cells."