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Research project a big opportunity for electric car club

Team photo in yellow logo shirts

The electric car club is working with alternative fuel vehicles for the MU Fire Response Training Institute. The project includes a grant that will help the club acquire parts to build its own alternative fuel vehicle.

The electric car club is still an upstart, but a project with grant money attached could be just the thing it needs to take off.

Automobiles have been on the road for more than a century now. Constant technical and aesthetic improvements have been made along the way, but the cars parked all over campus today operate under essentially the same concepts as did Henry Ford’s Model T. That is, except for electric cars.

With car companies such as Chevrolet and Nissan creating more affordable alternative-fuel vehicles, related industries face unique challenges in adapting to the cars’ different designs. Emergency response is one area in which that adaptation comes better sooner than later. MU’s electric car club is working to streamline emergency response processes for alternative fuel vehicles.

For more than 30 years, the Jaws of Life have assisted emergency response crews in extricating drivers and passengers from deadly car wrecks. These tools safely and efficiently cut through a traditional car because the longstanding fundamental design has become standard. But car companies have a lot more design leeway when it comes to electric and hybrid-electric cars because they are so new.

“Things as simple as wire coloring vary from company to company,” said Shane Corl, president of Mizzou Engineering’s electric car club.

Electric cars are composed of three main components: a motor, a controller, and a battery. Cutting through a wire with the Jaws of Life could electrocute emergency workers and accident victims or start electrical fires. Puncturing a battery could cause dangerous chemicals to leak on the highway or an explosion. To avoid this, emergency crews would have to search through a book of design details for alternative-fuel vehicles prior to responding to an accident.

The electric car club is working as a subcontractor for the MU Fire and Rescue Training Institute (FRTI) on a project compiling a web-based database with alternative-fuel vehicle design specifications. Emergency response crews will be able to quickly look up details about an alternative-fuel vehicle involved in a crash en route to the accident site and determine where it is safe to cut the vehicle if necessary.

The FRTI won the contract to create an emergency field guide after submitting a proposal to the National Fire Protection Agency. Agricultural engineering Professor Leon Schumacher is partially responsible for getting the electric car club involved. Kevin Zumwalt, assistant director for the MU FRTI, contacted Schumacher about the project.

“We met as a group and outlined a plan for the project,” Schumacher said. “We had to have a group who could respond quickly. The focus of the RFP was on the needs of a first responder for an electric car. Immediately, my first thought was that this club should be involved.”

Electric car club members will be responsible for contacting automobile manufacturers and collecting information on more than 70 cars. A web design team from Tranquility Internet Services, a Columbia internet provider owned by Schumacher, will create the actual database. Ideally, the finished product will be accessible by computer, internet-enabled phones, or any other means of internet access available to first responders. The club began the project in December and has 90 days to complete it by the March 1 deadline. At the end, the club will receive $10,000 compensation.

The electric car club is only a little more than a year old, and this project is its first big source of funding. The club, which is made up of mechanical and electrical engineers, aims to convert a gas-powered vehicle to an electrical one and enter competitions with it.

“We have a potential motor from surplus,” Corl said. “Our major purchases, the controller and the battery pack, are high-dollar things.” Corl said a battery alone could cost up to $10,000.

Schumacher said the project will help the club in other areas than funding. They’ll gain contacts with car companies, and they’ll experience the research side of the university, an area in which students don’t often have the opportunity to get involved.

“It will allow them to put different materials in place,” Schumacher said. “This project is the equivalent of jumpstarting the program.”