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Local student works on driving into the future

According to Zack Ward of River Falls, the auto industry and the United States need to push for better fuel economy.

As a means to that end, Ward and about 40 of his engineering school teammates at UW-Madison are taking part in a three-year competition called "EcoCAR."

In early October the team received a GM-donated car with the goal of converting it into an extended-range parallel hybrid vehicle. The students are taking part in the GM- and U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored challenge, where 17 North American will work at reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions during the next two years.

"I believe the auto industry needs to push for better fuel economy and that America will be pushing for better fuel economy the more the price of gas rises and become instable," began Ward, when asked the importance of the university's project. "Using less oil is good for both our country and the environment. Hybrid vehicles are a great way to save gas, especially in city driving environments where hybrid technologies optimize the use of energy.

"As we further develop hybrid vehicle technology, fuel economy will go up and emissions will go down, as will the cost of these vehicles."

Ward, the son of Michael and Sally Ward of River Falls, hopes to graduate in May 2010. He's now working on a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a technical communication certificate.

Ward learned about the competition after reading a poster displayed on the engineering part of the campus.

He decided to take part in the challenge because, "I believe the personal transportation industry is one that has a lot of potential for change. I wanted to learn more about what goes into building hybrid vehicles.

"It is a fun and challenging project involving the coordination of many people with many different skills."

Ward says he's considered a "key member" of the team, mainly because of his upperclassman status.

"I'm one of the dozen or so more active members on the team," Ward explained. "We (the key members) take on larger tasks or more critical tasks within the team, and have weekly meetings, and sometimes help run the team meetings. I work mostly with the mechanical and controls groups within the team."

The completion of the challenge will not be overnight, according to Ward.

"I will be spending hundreds of hours over the course of the year working on the vehicle, attending meetings, etc., as many of the key members will. We have many other members who spend a few hours here and there when they have time. The group is very flexible."

Ward was also asked when the hybrid vehicle project will be completed.

"Completed is a relative term in our competition," said Ward, noting the three years that will be invested in the vehicle.

"The first year is a design year. We design and model vehicle changes and simulate the performance of the vehicle. The second year, the year we are in now, we get our donated vehicles from GM, put in our new components, and get the vehicle in driving condition.

"The third year is for improving our vehicle and making it 99% production ready. This means no odd buttons in the cab of the vehicle, the car should drive like a normal car, etc."

On May 27, 2010, the year-two results will be released, says Ward.

As a result of the competition, Ward hopes to learn the intricate knowledge and skills of hybrid design, testing and development.

"I would love the chance to work for a company like Tesla Motors, a new electric vehicle company in the Silicon Valley, or possibly become a consultant on hybrid vehicle development."

The ambitious young man says after graduation he will probably move to a city where he can, "...get a job in a field related to energy, most likely alternative fuel vehicles or green buildings, and embark on another new and exciting experience."

He still has his heart in River Falls, however.

"I hope to return to the River Falls/Greater Twin Cities area within the next 10 years and start a family."

To learn more about the EcoCAR challenge, Ward suggested interested readers go to: or