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This post was written by University of Waterloo graduate, Michael Giannikouris, on his experience in Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions, including EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge.

In 2009, I started a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. My degree supervisors, Dr. Roydon Fraser and Dr. Michael Fowler, were also the faculty advisors for the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team. When I came in on the first day they didn’t have office space for me, so Dr. Fraser suggested that I “hang around” the garage where the team worked.


Giannikouris (first row, second from right) with the University of Waterloo team during the Year Three competition during EcoCAR 1

The team was just starting the second year of EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge, which is the vehicle build year, so it was an exciting time to get involved. It took a few weeks to “learn the ropes” but I soon found myself spending every day (and night) in that garage and getting involved in anything I could get my hands on. From taking apart the car to modeling the battery pack to designing the cooling systems, I wanted to know how everything was done. Once I got a taste of the electrical and controls side of things, I was hooked. I spent the third year wiring electrical systems, writing powertrain control code, and working as the team captain.

After EcoCAR, I stayed in Waterloo and joined a local company called CrossChasm Technologies. The company had been formed years earlier by other AVTC graduates and seemed like a perfect fit. At CrossChasm, I work on various control system projects, including a series of remote-controlled robotic rovers that are a lot of fun. I’m also a developer for the company’s FleetCarma data logging hardware, which is used to monitor energy, emissions, and usage data for conventional, hybrid, and electric vehicles.

I don’t think I can overstate how valuable my AVTC experience has been. I found a passion for a field of engineering that had previously been unknown to me. I’ve been able to combine my mechanical engineering training with my interest in computer software and apply them in interesting and hugely rewarding applications.

Giannikouris (third from left) during the EcoCAR Winter Workshop in Daytona Beach

Giannikouris (third from left) during the EcoCAR Winter Workshop in Daytona Beach

I’ve benefited a lot from working with some really great people including EcoCAR team members, faculty advisors, AVTC organizers, and competition sponsors. The people involved in AVTCs are genuinely enthusiastic about what they do, and I count myself lucky to have been able to benefit from their knowledge and guidance.

EcoCAR has helped me learn to take on new challenges, to revel in the unknown, and to always find (sometimes creative) ways to get the job done. But like anything in life you only get out of it what you put in. Being heavily involved in EcoCAR was a lot of work (my wife had to join the team just to be able to spend time with me!), but it was 100% worth it. It’s really important to take advantage of the opportunities that AVTCs have to offer, because I don’t think that there are many other experiences that can compare.

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UWAFT students at the convention

Earlier this academic year, the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) attended the Ontario College Motive Power Convention, hosted by Niagara College. UWAFT was there to network with industry professionals and inform vendors and sponsors about the team, as well as hear any recommendations offered by the experts.

Several EcoCAR 2 competition sponsors, including Snap-On, General Motors, and CrossChasm, attended the convention and hosted several clinics. During the Snap-On sessions, the team learned about new technologies for tracking certain tools in the toolbox. This was very useful and informative for the team, who were also able to socialize with the Snap-On representative and talk to him about the progress on their design.

UWAFT members were also able to attend the GM clinic, the focus of which was the Volt. The Volt, GM’s electric vehicle, is the product of some of the greatest engineering that UWAFT had ever seen. “The amount of engineering behind it is unbelievable,” says mechanical team lead Ben Gaffney. The team was able to look into the design of the Volt during the clinic and gain insights that could be transferred to their own Malibu design.


A UWAFT team member at their booth

Another workshop that the team enjoyed was with CrossChasm. CrossChasm is a company that focuses on hybrid electric vehicles; from them, the team was able to learn more about the company and the green technologies they are involved with.

Besides attending clinics, the team was able to talk to other attendees about their work and the EcoCAR 2 competition. The team discussed their plans for Year Three, showed people their Malibu and talked about their progress thus far. Some of the sponsors and vendors gave the team advice that might help them with some of the challenges they face. Everyone the UWAFT team met wished them the best of luck in the competition!

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EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge was a life-changing experience for Eric Mallia, the outreach coordinator for the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team. Eric, then studying for his masters in environmental studies, always wanted to work in sustainable development and saw EcoCAR as an opportunity.

“When I first heard about EcoCAR and the challenges they were taking on, I knew I wanted to be part of it. The challenge of building a fuel cell vehicle and educating the public about green vehicle technologies was something I couldn’t pass up,” says Eric, “It also gave me the chance to get away from the desk and thesis writing and work directly with the community.”

During his time as the outreach coordinator for Years Two and Three of EcoCAR, he worked with the engineering team to develop an outreach plan that would educate the public about fuel cells and sustainable transportation. One of Eric’s greatest contributions was setting-up a feedback system. This system allowed for the team to monitor the impact of its outreach program.

“We were able to monitor the number of people that would visit our website or social media sites after outreach events and track which events would result in the highest number of follow-ups,” says Eric, “It was cutting edge at the time and is now used by almost every EcoCAR 2 school. That’s something I’m very proud of.”

After EcoCAR, Eric landed a job at CrossChasm Technologies. CrossChasm is no stranger to EcoCAR: its founders, Chris Mendes and Matt Stevens, are AVTC alumni and both participated in ChallengeX.  Eric’s role at CrossChasm is the general manager of FleetCarma, a division of CrossChasm that helps fleet managers make an informed decision on vehicle purchases. It does this by tracking the current usage of existing fleet vehicles and applying their usage data to vehicle models to accurately predict fuel consumption and total cost of ownership.

Through his experience with EcoCAR, Eric understood how to simplify and explain key messages to clients. He uses these skills every day with fleet managers when explaining how FleetCarma works. Skills learned with generating media pitches during EcoCAR events and finding a fascinating story for media outlets are also helping Eric pitch FleetCarma.

“EcoCAR was the stepping stone. It helped bridge my classroom knowledge with the real world. It was great to work with such a talented and motivated group of students, professors and industry professionals.”

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In an announcement earlier this week, EcoCAR 2 sponsor CrossChasm was crowned “Popular Choice” winner in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Apps for Vehicles Challenge.

“For us, the popular vote was the most important part since it represents the voice of exactly who MyCarma is built for. And we take the large number of votes we’ve received as a clear message that fuel economy needs to be personal, and MyCarma is the way to do that,” said CEO and advanced vehicle technology competition alumnus Matt Stevens.

The MyCarma app uses your driving data to generate a personal fuel economy label on new vehicles. It also calculates associated fuel savings for a specific drive cycle.

The Apps for Vehicles Challenge is focused on spurring innovative projects or services to reduce fuel costs and increase safety for consumers by utilizing vehicle-generated information, including data on engine speed, brake position, headlights, and distance traveled. Entries were judged based on their potential to help consumers improve fuel efficiency, creativity and innovation, use of open vehicle data and consumer accessibility.

“We believe that winning this comes with a commitment. A commitment that we will continue to grow and invest in the technology and team behind MyCarma and FleetCarma. To continue to make fuel economy personal.  And simple.  And most importantly, fun!” said Stevens.

The products developed through the Apps for Vehicles Challenge are now available for download, providing consumers with unique solutions that improve vehicle safety, comfort and fuel efficiency.

Check out the MyCarma video to see former University of Waterloo outreach coordinator Eric Mallia (EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge) and Matt Stevens himself explain how the app works and the importance of MyCarma.

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Mechanical Engineering student Alex Koch was introduced to the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team by one of his peers, who told him about a new sport utility vehicle that didn’t use any gasoline and emitted only water out of its tailpipe. “I had to check it out for myself at the garage, and once I started chasing down my first wire, I guess I never stopped,” he said. “I had to learn how every part of the powertrain worked.”

Alex competed in the Challenge X and EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge competitions.  He served as a valuable team member and Mechanical Lead in Challenge X during his undergrad at the University of Waterloo, and as the Team Captain for EcoCAR during his graduate program.

Alex said his favorite moment was during his second year of EcoCAR in Yuma.

“We just completed our first successful hydrogen fill, and as this was reported back to the organizers room we could hear the room erupt in a cheer over the radio. There was a lot of blood and sweat from the whole team to get to that point,” he said. “It also goes to show just how much everyone involved in the competition cares about seeing teams and students succeed.”

Koch during Challenge X (front, second from right)

With two AVTCs and both a Bachelor of Applied Science and a Master of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering from University of Waterloo, Alex was more than prepared for the real world.

“The knowledge I gained through AVTCs let me walk directly out of school into a seasoned workforce without any additional training,” he said. “It’s like having another degree all on its own. The leadership and teamwork habits follow me through every project, and my communication and presentation skills are used on a daily basis.”

Alex currently serves as controls and simulation engineer at CrossChasm Technologies – an AVTC-graduate born business – where he works on just about any moving object requiring the learning of new systems, software and powertrains. He is also a product developer for FleetCarma, working with systems that monitor energy and emission data from all vehicles, including new plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

“To be able to take part in designing these new vehicles, and now help in the adoption of the vehicles in the marketplace, is pretty exciting,” he said.

Alex said that participating in AVTCs makes you more desirable to future employers. “The requirements of the competition are constantly updated to keep pace with industry, and they create highly effective graduates in the workforce.

“AVTCs have, without a doubt, changed my life for the better,” he said. “The friendships and memories will be cherished for a long time.”

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CrossChasm, the parent company to EcoCAR Silver Sponsor FleetCarma, was founded by Challenge X competitors and University of Waterloo alumni Matt Stevens and Chris Mendes five years ago. Stevens and Mendes have continued to support Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTCs) through the years, and CrossChasm has recruited heavily out of EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge and EcoCAR 2. Business without Borders writer Sean Fine published a piece on CrossChasm and its relationship with AVTCs last week – check it out here, it’s definitely worth a read! And take a look at our previous post welcoming FleetCarma to the EcoCAR 2 family.

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Five years ago, Matt Stevens was sitting in a classroom learning about electrochemistry and control theory. Matt participated in Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility, a Department of Energy Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition (AVTC), throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Waterloo. Matt’s experience in Challenge X led him to his current position, helping clients design and build powertrains and technology that will help drive tomorrow’s vehicles.  

Matt served as a team leader for the University of Waterloo’s Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) in Challenge X, which re-engineered a production Chevy Equinox into a hybrid fuel cell vehicle.  With funding and support from Natural Resources Canada, Matt and his team developed the first dedicated fuel cell vehicle in AVTC history to participate in every competition event! The project was the foundation for his research, which earned Matt a PhD in chemical engineering with a focus on hybrid powertrain design and battery degradation.

The interdisciplinary nature of the AVTC program inspired Matt to launch CrossChasm Technologies with Chris Mendes, another AVTC graduate. The CrossChasm team expanded and added a third AVTC graduate, Jen Bauman. 

Applying new technologies to reduce the cost of developing hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles; Matt, Chris and Jen work with off-road, light-duty and heavy-duty vehicle clients.  The CrossChasm team also works with fleets, policy makers, and NGO’s to enable the adoption of higher efficiency powertrains.  The interdisciplinary nature of AVTC was instrumental in developing the soft skills demanded by CrossChasm’s clients.

Matt is currently an “on-call” resource for the Waterloo team and is excited to see what the graduates of EcoCAR will turn out this year!

Matt Stevens (middle) poses with GM and Department of Energy executives during Challenge X

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