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“Roadkill” (Tom Smyth) and “General John” (John Firment) are a legendary volunteering twosome in the world of Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTC). Respected and loved by all, the duo has been working together since 1991.

A key component for any team in competition is teamwork, and Tom and John exemplify this characteristic.  Tom said, “We can read each others minds. When I was an event captain, he was my right arm and when he was an event captain, I was his right arm. We think alike.”

“Roadkill” and “General John” are always a click away through their trusty CB radios. Whether it is setting up awards behind the stages or filling up coolers with water in the Yuma desert, these two will get the job done.

Surprisingly, the duo hasn’t always volunteered behind the scenes. General Motors and Natural Resources Canada were sponsors in 1991 and Tom and John were assigned to work on the Natural Gas Vehicle Challenge.

Today, Tom is retired. Prior to retirement he worked for Natural Resources Canada, starting out in a chemical plant as a maintenance engineer. He finished out his career working with heavy-duty trucks – convincing them to use alternative fuels like natural gas, biodiesel and different tires for fuel economy.

John, a non-degree engineer, is currently a retired General Motors employee after 40 years of service. “I worked my way up through the ranks,” he said. He has done everything from working in the clerk department to vehicle development to disassembling and analyzing vehicles. “It was a fun career!”

Tom and John said that their favorite moments during the competitions are seeing the students lend a helping hand to one another during times of need. “They’re all working together for a common goal. You get some of the best engineers,” said John. “Your practical experience in the real world makes you a much, much better engineer.”

The two agree that the program has drastically changed since their involvement began over two decades ago. John said that he has seen continuous improvement throughout the years. “The tech has evolved over a period of time and it’s more professional now. It is well defined, well thought out and you have to meet special criteria to pass inspection,” he said.

Nowadays, both Tom and John are retired, but they continuously return to the competitions year after year as loyal volunteers. Tom said his involvement in the competitions changed his life.

“Roadkill” and “General John” engage in a variety of activities outside of volunteering at EcoCAR. In addition to being an engineering techie, Tom is also a theater techie, assuming the roles of projection stage manager and assistant stage manager. John writes handicap tickets for his local police department and also helps solve passenger issues at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The entire AVTC team is proud and grateful for the wonderful friendship of Tom and John.  Thank you for all your years of service, knowledge, dedication, passion and excitement for training the future generations!

Check out the video below of Tom and John working as the dynamic duo and a look back at their involvement in AVTCs over the last two decades.

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Just before June’s EcoCAR Finals, the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) proudly represented the EcoCAR Challenge as an exhibitor at the 2011 Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Conference (HFC2011) in Vancouver, B.C.  During the conference, UWAFT teamed up with EcoCAR Diamond Sponsor, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) to educate conference attendees about the EcoCAR Challenge and to showcase the design and technical achievements of the team’s student-built hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (FC-PHEV).

UWAFT Outreach Coordinator, Eric Mallia, at the 2011 hydrogen fuel cell conference

This is the second consecutive advanced vehicle technology competition (AVTC) of which UWAFT has re-engineered a General Motors donated vehicle into one that runs on hydrogen fuel cell technology.  In the past seven years of working on hydrogen fuel cell technology, UWAFT has partnered with several other companies in exhibiting at the conference including Air Liquide, who supplies UWAFT with hydrogen, and Dana Thermal Group, who helped UWAFT design a customized cooling system for its EcoCAR.

UWAFT is one of only two student teams in the EcoCAR Challenge that chose hydrogen as its alternative fuel for its competition vehicle.  Their vehicle design and performance – as well as outreach events like HFC2011 – earned the team a 3rd Place overall finish at Year Three Finals in June.

General Motors also displayed its 2008 Chevrolet Equinox Vehicle at the exhibit

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Cheri Olsen, right, preparing for the EcoCAR Year 1 Finals in Toronto

Cheri-Ann Olsen has been involved in the Department of Energy’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTC) for more than ten years. She first participated in the program as a student on the University of Alberta’s Ethanol Vehicle Challenge team in 2000 and FutureTruck team in 2002. After graduation, Cheri took a job at Natural Resources Canada, an AVTC sponsor since the program’s inception in 1987, where she has served as a competition organizer and Executive Steering Committee Member. Over the years, Cheri has had the opportunity to see the benefits of AVTC competitions from both sides of the spectrum – as a student and as an organizer.

“As a student, I had the unique opportunity to apply the skills I learned in school, and gain new experiences from the business and outreach aspects of the program,” said Cheri. “As an organizer, it’s exciting to watch the teams learn, develop and refine their technologies during the competitions.”

One of Cheri’s fondest memories was witnessing the University of Waterloo Challenge X team create a fully operational fuel cell vehicle that competed in the dynamic events during the final year of the competition. This major milestone marked the first time in AVTC history that a team was able to participate using a hydrogen fuel cell for vehicle propulsion.

Cheri has been a core organizer for both the Challenge X and EcoCAR competition series, serving as  a member of the Technical Sub Committee, the Co-Event Captain for the Competition Scoring, and a member of the Executive Steering Committee. These roles have given Cheri a close and intimate look at the teams’ capabilities and their vehicle development process.

“As a whole, advanced vehicle technology has come a long way in the last 30 years,” said Cheri. “It’s really nice to see all the hard work between governments, academia and industry come to fruition through competitions such as Challenge X and EcoCAR. It’s exciting to know that the future of advanced vehicle technology in North America is in such capable hands.”

With the EcoCAR Challenge well underway, both Cheri and Natural Resources Canada look forward to seeing where the next installment of AVTCs will take the ever evolving automotive industry.

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Kary Winkler from Georgia Tech checking out the outreach posters at the Winter Workshop

The EcoCAR teams were up early today to prepare for one of the main events at the Winter Workshop – the judged poster presentations that detail the teams’ vehicle unveiling outreach. Last fall, each team organized various outreach activities when the GM-donated vehicles were delivered.  After reviewing the posters that reflected the teams’ media results, it was evident that the students learned a lot while educating their communities about advanced vehicle technologies. 

The Penn State EcoCAR team had a particularly successful unveiling due to their effective use of social media.

“Our vehicle unveiling event was early in the morning,” said the Penn State team’s outreach coordinator, Dana Bubonovich. “I sent a tweet out about the event and it was picked up by Penn State’s blog,, within 10 minutes. Then the local news station saw it and sent a reporter to cover our event. It just shows the power of social media.” Read the rest of this entry »

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