Vancouver Sun Article
UBC engineering students to retool Beetle with electric motor
In previous years, UBC engineering students have committed all kinds of pranks with a Volkswagen Beetle, including hanging it from the SkyTrain bridge between Surrey and New Westminster in 2000. This year they plan to swap the gas engine in a working Beetle with an electric engine.
Photograph by: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun files
VANCOUVER — For nearly 30 years, the University of B.C.’s engineering students have made the Volkswagen Beetle an icon of mischief and pranks.
They’ve planted the car in Lost Lagoon. They’ve hung it from the university’s Ladner Clock Tower and the Lions Gate Bridge. They’ve placed it at the George Massey Tunnel, the PNE’s roller coaster and San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.
This year, a group of UBC electrical engineering students will try to turn that reputation around.
With an eye to showcasing the possibilities of electrical transportation at the 2010 Winter Games, they’ve purchased a working 37-year-old Volkswagen Beetle that they’ll transform into a model of sustainability.
In February, when the world comes to visit, they hope to inject it with power that can take them to Whistler and back — without a drop of carbon dioxide emissions.
It all started when Ricky Gu and his fellow members of UBC’s new Electric Car club, bought a working 1972 Beetle for $2,400.
The vehicle, purchased via a Craigslist ad, is rough but workable — and ready for some new internal organs.
By Wednesday, the vehicle’s engine will be replaced with an electric motor, and batteries will sit where the fuel tank once did.
“Mayor Gregor Robertson wanted to promote the city [during the Olympics] as one of the greenest cities in the world,” said Gu, 20, president of the Electric Car club, and a third-year student in electrical engineering.
“We should show that it’s not just the city, it’s the next generation of engineers who can support the idea of renewable energy.”
With encouragement from UBC’s engineering faculty, the students aim to showcase the car in public places during the 2010 Winter Games, where they’ll extol the virtues of sustainable, zero-emission transportation.
In February, they plan to drive the car along the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler — with a four-hour charge at any household outlet along the way — and then eventually around the world.
UBC’s electrical engineering department and the school’s professional activities committee granted the two-month-old club nearly $10,000 to pursue the goal.
The funds will be used to cover the car’s purchase and equipment that will transform it from a proverbial beater to a model of electrical engineering.
“By bringing it out there during the Olympics, we’re hoping that young people will see that just an idea and passion will bring a good idea to life,” says Andrea Luk, 24, a third-year electrical engineering student.
The electric motor is the size of two milk jugs, but it’s capable of producing more power than a regular Beetle’s engine and is six times more efficient than a gas engine.
The students were also impressed with the Beetle’s ordinary look. “It’s a car that looks right out of your driveway,” says Gu. The more newfangled a new product looks, the less likely the mainstream is to accept it.
But the Beetle’s familiarity lends itself to the students’ goal of marrying sustainable, green energy with the objects we see every day.
“The Beetle has been an official mascot for engineering, and they’re very reliable,” said Gu.
The one roadblock the students can see is the same one that plagues the average car consumer: the cost of the battery system, says Gu.
“The upfront expense is high, but you have to consider the money you save from buying gas over the years. In the long run you save money, but the public doesn’t have that kind of mentality yet.”
The battery they’ll install this week will give them about 80 kilometres on one charge. A return trip to Whistler next February may take most of the day, considering the four-hour charging time.
After the Olympics, the car’s engine will be replaced by one many times the horsepower of the original. With the new power injection, the group will enter the UN-sponsored Zero Emission race in June of 2010.
The world trip will demand a major overhaul, Gu admitted.
They’re anticipating that by the time of the world trip, they’ll have fitted the car with a motor that will give them 250 kilometres of travel.
With a daily electrical charge at mapped-out locations, they calculate they’ll be able to travel 500 kilometres a day for about 80 days for the 30,000-kilometre trip, launching in California, and stopping for public meet-and-greet events in 150 major cities such as Paris, Munich, Vienna, Moscow, Beijing, Montreal and London.
The Zero-Emissions race will pit UBC’s team — the only North American group registered for the trek so far — against teams from Germany, South Korea, the U.K., and New Zealand.
Their focus is on education over competition for the global race, says Gu.
“We don’t want to just drive. We want to promote sustainable energy all along the way. It’s a competition but it’s also a parade, and a way for the whole world to show what we can do for the environment.”
No surprise, the students are consummate keeners, winding their work on the car around their busy academic schedules and attempts at social lives. “We sleep here and there,” says Luk. “We sometimes take breaks and try to have a social life, but we know where our priorities lie.”
Until their global trek, the students will be devoting themselves to the hard work of transforming a tired, vintage vehicle into the car of the future.
And this time it’s a promise: no one will see this Beetle hanging from a bridge.