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Ryan Franey '09 takes Dr. Marty Morris for a spin in the ultra-light urban vehicle.
When a 120-pound person goes to the store and buys 40 pounds of groceries, a car weighing 3,000 pounds or more might be used. Most of the fossil fuels consumed on the trip move the mass of the vehicle. Only a fraction of the energy actually moves the essential 160 pounds of cargo.
Dr. Martin Morris, professor of mechanical engineering, sees this inequity as an opportunity for a new type of vehicle designed for efficient and affordable urban travel while avoiding the high cost of alternative hybrid vehicles.
For the past four years, Morris has challenged a team of senior mechanical engineering students to address the problem. He wants to develop an efficient, ultra-light urban vehicle. The current concept is one that will run on electricity and that will employ regenerative braking. Regenerative braking will recapture the kinetic energy of the vehicle and cargo to be transferred back into the battery. In a traditional braking system, this kinetic energy would be lost every time the vehicle comes to a stop.
“The goal is to produce a vehicle that is safe, but is as light and energy efficient as possible,” Morris says. The vehicle’s maximum speed would be about 45 miles per hour and it could weigh as little as 300-400 pounds. Such a vehicle would be perfect for running errands in an urban environment, but would not be intended for highway driving.
Building on four years of previous student work, this year a senior project team produced a prototype that helps move such a vehicle closer to reality. Their prototype has three wheels, a single drive wheel in back and two wheels at the front for greater stability. This design also can be licensed as a motorcycle, which gives the engineers more flexibility. The prototype has a steel frame with a fiberglass body. “It has no A/C, no radio, and is not necessarily water tight,” Morris says.
After test driving the vehicle, Morris discusses his observations with members of the senior project team: Jim Voelker '09, Jacob Abu Hanna '09, Ryan Franey '09, Justin Coyle '09, and Robin Flick '09.
According to senior mechanical engineering student Justin Coyle ’09, the prototype weighs just about 410 pounds and can be driven for about a penny a mile. “If you compare it to a car that gets 30 miles per gallon of gas, this vehicle would get about 250 miles per gallon.” The batteries can go over 50 miles before needing to be recharged, which is done by simply plugging them in.
Although this vehicle ultimately uses a carbon-based fuel (electricity from the grid, which would be coal in most parts of the country), its energy use is much more efficient than a vehicle burning gasoline. The electricity could easily be supplied from a renewable source. Morris believes that reducing our dependence on foreign oil is an important reason to develop electric vehicles. “Consumption of foreign oil is a national security issue,” he says. “We need to move away from it. There are lots of ways to generate electricity.”
Ryan Franey ’09 says a car such as the ultra-light will also be inexpensive to produce. “Production costs could be between $3,000-$5,000. Compare this to hybrid cars, which are very expensive to produce.”
The prototype may not have A/C, heat, or a radio, but, to keep costs low, the final product would not have these amenities either. Unlike the prototype, it would have enclosed sides.
One reason the students have been able to make such rapid progress on developing the vehicle is generous financial support from Bradley engineering alum Jesse Maberry ’65. Morris spoke to Maberry about the concept four years ago and he was very enthusiastic. He has continued to support the project—and the students—ever since.
Next year, a new team of senior mechanical engineering students will continue work on the ultra-light urban vehicle. “One important goal,” Morris says, “is to reduce the weight.”