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Challenging Student Designers to Create New Kinds of Vehicles

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Car Design
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Rethinking "vehicle"

Challenging Student Designers to Create New Kinds of Vehicles

It’s probably no surprise to hear that, in the U.S., 27 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. So making cars more efficient is an important strategy as we work to slow CO2 emissions. Getting to carbon-free vehicles should be our ultimate goal, but we’re still a long way off.

That’s why I’m so excited to see research being done on developing bridge technologies that can help us move closer to our goal. A Michigan based company called EcoMotors has a revolutionary new take on an old technology — the internal combustion engine. It’s a high-efficiency design meant to replace the typical engines we use in today’s cars, trucks, agricultural machinery, generators, and marine vehicles.

My friend Vinod Khosla and I have invested in EcoMotors because their technology is primed to make a difference right now. The company is radically simplifying engines, leading to a footprint that is smaller and lighter than a traditional engine, but just as powerful. It still burns gas (or diesel fuel, or CNG), but its unique opposed-piston, opposed cylinder architecture, low friction losses, and modular capability make it much more efficient.

But innovations like these are only useful if consumers want them — and that’s where the EcoMotors Design Challenge comes in.

This year, EcoMotors asked transportation and product design students from The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and College for Creative Studies in Detroit to design concept cars that take advantage of the EcoMotors engine, and make us rethink the concept of a “vehicle.” These bright young designers have developed cars, trucks, and other vehicles that have wide-ranging applications, from high-efficiency, high-capacity sedans to modular equipment for farmers in Southeast Asia. The EcoMotors Design challenge jury was led by chief judge Jack Telnack (former Ford design chief) included former General Motors and Chrysler design chiefs Wayne Cherry and Tom Gale, and also renowned collector and aficionado Jay Leno.

Most exciting to me is the fact that these students are commercializing a product that can help reduce carbon output, and reach underserved markets whose transportation options are slim.

Many of the designs could have significant impacts in global markets, where fuel costs and emissions compete with the need for mobility. Two concepts were specifically designed for use in Southeast Asia: a modular agricultural vehicle, which can be used as a walk-behind tiller or an electricity-generator for a larger vehicle; and a utility vehicle with cargo space under the truck bed, allowing for a slim body with seating for five or more passengers.

The student finalists showed off their designs at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, and I think you’ll find that their work stood out even among all the other flashy concept cars from around the world.

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