Methanol Marathon

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This Earth Week, we are celebrating a quarter century of Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTCs). For a closer look at the 25 year history of this program and the significant impact it has had on the participants and the automotive industry, please watch our special video tribute and read our guest blog below from the founders and current leaders of the AVTC Program:  Bob Larsen, Phil Patterson, Kristen De La Rosa and Connie Bezanson

How It All Started

After working with Bob Sechler at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to introduce the alcohol fuel class in Formula SAE in the mid 1980s, Phil Patterson (DOE) and Bob Larsen (ANL) became convinced of the effectiveness of collegiate vehicle competitions. Although the competition format fosters hands-on learning by undergraduate engineers, it seemed to us that the students could learn even more if presented with the task of re-engineering a production car to use technologies that could reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil while educating them in even a wider range of technologies relevant to the automotive industry.

So in 1988, we established the Methanol Marathon, a series of vehicle tests combined with a road rally from Detroit through New York City that ended in Washington, D.C. Teams were challenged to use methanol (M85), the same fuel used in Formula SAE, on a road-worthy car and attack problems with cold-starting, exhaust emissions, performance, range, and drivability.  General Motors (GM) joined DOE and SAE as sponsors, and fifteen schools from across U.S. and Canada participated. Footage from the finale on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is included in the 25th AVTC Anniversary video below.  It became apparent there was still more to learn from these cars and even more to be gained from this type of event, so the Methanol Challenge was initiated for 1990.  From these humble beginnings, AVTCs were born.  It was also the start of many productive collaborative partnerships that continue to this day with our colleagues at Natural Resources Canada and GM foremost among them.

What has followed is an entire series of AVTCs held all over the U.S. and in Canada for the last 25 years that have explored the potential of every major alternative fuel and pioneered the development and testing of electric-drive and plug-in vehicles with vehicle manufacturer partners Chrysler, Ford and GM that continues today.  These competitions have given dozens of schools and tens of thousands of students learning opportunities with advanced propulsion and fuel technologies critical to the nation they could not have received any other way.  Participating colleges and universities leverage their AVTC participation into a vast array of new facilities and curriculum offerings and enhanced the careers and credentials of dozens of engineering professors.  AVTC experience has enabled almost all the student participants to receive job offers, beginning their careers in places they never expected when they started in the program.  And many of the AVTC graduates have gone on to bring the very advanced vehicle technologies they worked on into production, spreading the benefits from these technologies to industry and the nation as a whole – a central part of the vision that motivated us to first found AVTCs.

The Next 25 Years

In the next several weeks, we will be approaching several new milestones in the AVTC program. We will be gathering at GM’s Desert Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona and in locations throughout San Diego for the Year Two Competition of the three-year EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future series. This is the first AVTC series in the program’s history to feature 15 unique Plug In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and we’re exceptionally proud and excited to see the 15 participating teams debut their prototype vehicles. In just a couple weeks we will also be releasing the Request for Proposal (RFP) to select university teams for our next AVTC series, EcoCAR 3. The new series will expand to four academic years, allowing for teams to push the envelope even further and explore new, innovative technologies, which will help advance automotive technology into the future, while incorporating other constraints such as component cost into their designs.

We are immensely proud of the history of AVTCs and the good they have fostered among students, schools and sponsors.  With grateful thanks to the hundreds of organizers, thousands of volunteers and a multitude of generous sponsors, we believe the AVTCs are a testament to the power of collaboration between government, industry and academia that enables us to respond creatively and collectively to the great challenges that face us and the world.  The shining success of 25 years of AVTCs can be attributed to working toward a shared vision of a better, more sustainable, more environmentally responsible, more prosperous future for us all!

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