Mich. college students develop an electric Subaru

GVSU engineering students transform 1999 Subaru Outback into electric vehicle

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Published On: Jan 05 2012 03:05:26 PM EST   Updated On: Jan 05 2012 04:07:31 PM EST
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Next year, new electric or hybrid models from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota are hitting the market as the shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles by the world's automakers quickens pace.

But the only electric Subaru you're likely to see on the road will be here in Grand Rapids.

That's because for the past year, engineering students with the Electric Car Club at Grand Valley State University have been transforming a donated 1999 Subaru Outback Legacy from a gas-powered import to an all-electric vehicle.

"My wife really didn't want to get rid of it," said Ron Grew, lab supervisor at the John C. Kennedy Hall of Engineering downtown at the Pew Campus, who donated the car in 2009.

"It had some engine problems and it was going to be too much to repair," he said. "I figured it would be great to make an electric car out of."

Under the supervision of Grew and Professor Mehmet Sozen, the students are nearing the finish line for the Subaru conversion project, having overcome numerous design challenges on their quest to replace the car's internal combustion engine with an all-electric motor.

The project received about $13,000 in grant funding from the university and the team ordered parts this spring and summer. If all goes well, they are hoping the project, tackled a few hours each week, will be read to roll out in June.

"It's truly meant to be the exact same as a gasoline-powered car, just with batteries," said Andrew Twining, a 25-year-old mechanical engineering major from Norton Shores.

Twining is one of the leaders on the conversion team, which began a two-pronged approach to the project after tearing out the engine parts unnecessary to the Subaru's new life as an electric vehicle.

Mechanical engineering majors were assigned roles designing mounting and structural integrity components while the team's electrical and computer engineering majors figured systems for wiring routes, safety and power load.

Soon, they will attach their 30 horsepower, 120-volt direct current WarP9 brand electric motor to the transmission using a mount designed by Mike Martinelli, a 21-year-old a mechanical engineering major from Highland.

Before they do that, the motor's controller unit, which converts a driver's stop-and-go pedal actions into a digital input, needs to be mounted on a design by Caitlyn Hurley, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering freshman from Clinton Township.

Those are among the myriad tasks that still need figuring out before the car is road-worthy.

When it is finished, the car will be hauling 20 deep-cycle lead-acid batteries weighing 1,300 pounds in the back, necessitating some kind of suspension support. They are expecting the 5-speed manual shift car to top out at about 70 to 80 mph, with an 80-mile range.

For some of the systems, the students found themselves looking to a small but existing market for kit parts designed by garage-based electric car enthusiasts around the world.

"It's a lot like somebody gave you two-thirds of a Lego kit," said Mike Hesel, a mechanical engineering graduate from Ann Arbor. "It assumes you have the capability to design and fabricate every custom piece you don't have."

"And not having the directions or the final picture, either," added Twining.

The work takes place in the vehicle bay in the engineering building each Monday for a few hours, when students work around what they say is an intense engineering program with a high attrition rate.

In order to graduate, GVSU engineering students must complete a certain amount of hours in a mandatory co-op program where they gain field-work experience on private sector projects.

However, the car conversion project gives these students a leg-up when they enter the competitive job market. Hesel said he got three job offers based on his work with the Subaru.

"When we finish this design, I can take pictures of this to the company I'm interviewing with and say 'Look what I did. Look what I built,'" said Martinelli

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids