Meet the U of M’s first eco-marathon team

The Manitoban speaks to the leaders of UMecoMotion on building a battery-powered car

UMecoMotion: Top row: UMecoMotion founder Mihskakwan (Red Cloud) James Harper. Front row, third from the left Mikel Gallajones and to his right, Alan Huynh

The University of Manitoba officially has their first eco-marathon team.

UMecoMotion, which began as a U of M student group in September of this year, is a design team of 40 engineering students, all of whom have a dream: to design and build a battery-powered vehicle, and to get that vehicle to the 2017 Shell Eco-marathon. The club is the first of its kind at the University of Manitoba. The Manitoban spoke with co-leaders Alan Huynh, Mykel Gallajones, and team captain James Harper about the process of building a battery-powered car, the marathon, and the possibility of a more energy-efficient future.


The Shell Eco-marathon

The 2017 Shell Eco-marathon is scheduled for April in Detroit, Michigan, and the UMecoMotion team is already hard at work at designing the vehicle they plan to enter into the competition.

“From the mechanical side, our team is currently working with the body on an integration plan with the welding details,” Huynh explained.

“Our team is working hard on meeting the limited timeline set by the academic year and the competition,” Harper added.

“In terms of overall per cent complete, we are near 40 per cent. This means we are beginning to wrap up detailed design and are preparing for fabrication and testing through the winter break and into the second semester.”

While James Harper describes the learning curve as “sharp,” he also notes that the fast-paced environment is similar to industry standards.

“Considering that we must also build what we design, it is actually simulating actual industry level experience with budget and timeline constraints, while also ensuring that the design is practical in manufacturing and integration,” he said.

While the summit also includes forums and opportunities to meet fellow enthusiasts from all over the world, the main attraction is the marathon itself. When the vehicle is complete, about 10 of UMecoMotion’s members will travel to Detroit, where their vehicle will be tested in a closed-off street. The rules are relatively simple: the car must maintain an average speed of 15 mph over a distance of 10 miles. Fuel consumption is then calculated based on the car’s starting and ending fuel levels. The vehicles, after several attempts, are then ranked based on miles per kilowatt hour (m/kWh).

The principle of the marathon, however, is not necessarily speed, but rather efficiency. While the competition includes a variety of categories based on propulsion – including gasoline, diesel, and hydrogen-fuel cell-propelled vehicles – UMecoMotion chose battery power as their method of propulsion as a reflection of the province they’re representing, according to Harper.

“Our team chose this as a reflection on how Manitoba has a high potential to be a world leader in electric vehicle development,” Harper said.

“Abundant hydroelectric power, and a strong technical industry, [UMecoMotion] can help drive this dream.”

“The principle is simple: identify all of the areas of loss in vehicular transport, and either reduce or eliminate them. The challenge comes from the how.”


Canadian pride on a worldwide stage

There are several different Shell Eco-marathons in different locations around the world. If they win, UMecoMotion won’t be the first Canadian team to do so. In the 2016 marathon, “Beyond,” the vehicle entered by the Université de Sherbrooke in Québec earned first place.

The UMecoMotion team’s logo – a bison’s head – was chosen to showcase their pride for their university and province. The team also chose to name their vehicle as a reflection of the land on which the vehicle was built.

“With respect to the lands we stand on, honouring the Cree, Ojibway, and Dakota Nations, as well as acknowledging the homelands of the Métis, and that we are on Treaty 1 territory, we have named our battery electric vehicle to be “Waskotepeyiw” which means lightning,” said Gallajones.

Waskotepeyiw (pronounced WAS-coat-TEY-pey-yew) is a name that holds a lot of weight to the UMecoMotion team.

“Waskotepeyiw comes from the root word ‘iskote’ (IS-coat-TEY) meaning powerful, center of home, center of family. United as a team, I believe we are a powerful force,” Harper added.


The future of electric cars

The UMecoMotion team believes that while this competition utilizes vehicles meant only for small distances and not regular use, battery-powered vehicles for the masses are coming.

“The movement towards battery-powered electric vehicles has already begun. Many car manufacturers such as Nissan, Toyota, General Motors and Tesla have manufactured electric powered vehicles,” Huynh said.

“This shows that our future is moving towards a more environmentally friendly approach to transportations and that big companies are getting aware of our environment’s situation.”

“Very soon, electric vehicles will become cost competitive to ordinary gasoline vehicles, as advancements are made in energy storage,” Harper added.

While Harper is optimistic, he says that there is still work to be done, and hopes that Manitoba will be quick to get on board with energy-efficient vehicle innovations.

“Reducing losses from aerodynamics, to internal friction, to improving driving patterns – all of these are currently in research and development as a brand new market comes into play,” he said.

“This is a market I hope to see Manitoba participate in, and one that should happen very soon or else the opportunities will emerge elsewhere.”


Energy efficiency for a sustainable future

The UMecoMotion team is also involved with programs within the province. Co-leaders Huynh and Gallajones also lead communications for the team, which involves social media outreach and youth programs.

“We have also conducted a few youth outreach activities where we introduced elementary students to aerodynamic topics, efficiency, and renewable energy, then let them build their own paper airplanes,” said Huynh.

Encouraging people to examine their country’s energy efficiency policies is another goal that UMecoMotion wishes to achieve.

“What needs to change now for an energy efficient future are policies. Government, industry, and organizations need to quickly implement programs and incentives for everyone from the average consumer, to the largest of corporations,” Harper said.

“To encourage investment and development in renewable generation, more efficient use of energy, and an overall decrease in the demand of energy.”

Harper also said that sustainability in the future will be a matter of educating everyday people.

“If we begin by empowering people to make conscious decisions, the progress to a sustainable world can be achieved.”