Carnegie Mellon sustains collaboration with General Motors

Credit: Nicole Hamilton/Comics Editor Credit: Nicole Hamilton/Comics Editor

Research and development of hybrid electric vehicle technology is quickly accelerating. Many argue that the advantages of transitioning to a more electric, less-polluting automobile industry are numerous, and car makers are running with that motivation to develop more efficient and reliable electric vehicles. Universities can act as a hotbed for research, and Carnegie Mellon in particular has been a significant force behind the technologies empowering hybrid electric vehicles.

Carnegie Mellon’s helping hand became evident when representatives from General Motors (GM) visited campus last week to talk about GM’s recent developments and its relationship with the university, which dates back to 1977 when GM first initiated collaborative research.

In 2000, GM established a collaborative research lab at Carnegie Mellon, helping develop vehicle information technology. Information technology, specifically in regard to hybrid electric vehicles, refers to the way the different components of the car communicate with each other, as well as with the environment and with the driver and passengers.

Carnegie Mellon’s research in information technology helped its team win the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2007, an autonomous vehicle contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The contest involved driverless vehicles completing a 60-mile course in less than six hours.

Last Thursday, GM announced that it will be giving Carnegie Mellon a $70,000 scholarship grant supporting a number of different organizations on campus. The research funded by this grant, along with all collaborative research between Carnegie Mellon and GM, remains transparent to the public.

“Our relationship with GM — and not just with this grant, but the support they’ve given us — is all based on the fact that we are a university that openly publishes results. We stay within the paradigm of what it means to be doing research at a university,” explained Ed Schlesinger, head of the electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department.

As part of their visit, the GM representatives brought along a few of their new Chevrolet Volts for anyone to try out and take for a test drive, giving the public a chance for a real hands-on experience with these new vehicles. The Volt’s lithium-ion battery is optimized for the average commute for a typical American — about 40 miles per day. “[For about 40 miles], you can drive all-electrically. I only use electricity and I can do that for about $1.50 worth of electricity,” said on-site engineer Stephen Marlin. Marlin accompanied those who test-drove the Volt.

The Volt includes various ways of harnessing energy that would normally be allowed to dissipate. One method is the Volt’s regenerative braking, which captures the frictional energy produced when braking and converts it to electrical energy. The Volt also has the ability to harness the heat energy produced by the running engine; batteries optimally work under warm conditions, and the engine heat will help warm up the power source. “Any energy that is being produced is going into the battery. [The engine] is not just wastefully running,” Marlin said.

The $40,000 price tag on the Volt will hopefully decrease as a result of the ongoing collaborative research efforts between Carnegie Mellon and GM. Their relationship will not only continue to help improve GM products, but will also help pursue a much broader goal. Susan Farrington, director of alumni and student relations in the ECE department, said, “As a member of the community, I think we all have to be thinking and working towards different energy solutions.”