Montgomery County Community College Engineering Students to Compete in Worldwide Fuel-efficient Concept Car Challenge


Blue Bell, Pa.— Montgomery County Community College Engineering students are putting the finishing touches on an energy-efficient concept car they’ve built from scratch and are about to take for a spin in an upcoming international competition.

Twenty students working on project INNOVA, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered urban concept vehicle, led by Engineering Professor William Brownlowe and Technical Advisor Griff Francis, are headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, April 12-16 to test their design on an infield track during the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas 2023 regional competition. The event is “a global academic program that challenges talented students to design and build cars, considering technical and behavioral factors to achieve game-changing energy efficiency results,” according to its website. 

The project INNOVA team includes: Franzine Bagalawis, Philip Charron, Katherine Cocar, Joe DeFazio, Eric Fisher, Ben German, Nophir Harrell, Paul Jacobs, Gabriella Joella, Rob Kay, Nathan Mayer, Gerald Moss, Tom Quinn, Andrew Rubenstein, Claudia Savella, John Schuhl, Shawn Sherwood, Dominic-Evon Torres, Sabrina Turner and Melody Welsh.

The MCCC Mustangs are taking what they’ve learned in Engineering classrooms and are applying it to a real-world test case. They’ll face teams from around the world who have been tasked with building a car that can try to answer the question “how can we travel using as little energy as possible?” according to the competition. “The current record for gasoline-powered Prototype vehicles is 3,771 km (2,343 miles) on one liter of fuel – that’s the equivalent of driving from London to Rome and back.”

“The purpose of this competition is to try to identify to the general public that commuter transportation is too heavy,” said Brownlowe. “And it’s too inefficient.”

Designing the car

Urban concept cars, according to Shell, “are closer to passenger cars in appearance. They must be built to consider human needs, such as driver comfort and space for luggage, and to meet road specifications, such as including four wheels and a windscreen wiper. It’s challenging for teams to create maximum energy efficiency with these added mandatory elements.” The students’ vehicle, called INNOVA 3.0, looks very similar to a go-kart and is projected to weigh 210 pounds by the start of the competition.

“Which is phenomenal,” said Brownlowe, who was advisor to the team that competed in the Eco-marathon in 2017 in Detroit with a vehicle that weighed over 320 pounds. “We took almost 35 percent off the vehicle’s weight this time.” The team used lighter materials to build the vehicle to help bring down the weight. Theoretically, the 210-pound vehicle carrying one person, projected to travel 16 miles per hour, should get 400 miles to the gallon equivalent fuel efficiency.

“If you can do that at this level, what can you do at the industry level that we’re not doing? This is the future,” said Brownlowe, adding that consumers need to be convinced to purchase lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. “It takes a grassroots effort which is best conducted by students, who are the future purchasers, designers, and builders of commuter vehicles.”

This year’s team is filled with incredibly talented students, who have worked together for nearly five years to bring this car to life, said Brownlowe.

“The fall of 2018 was the last time we drove INNOVA 2.0, and we disassembled it,” said Brownlowe. “The fall of 2019, we started building this car. Of course, we only got one semester in before the school was closed, and we were off campus for a year and a half. We resumed in the fall of 2022. So, we’ve been working on this one for probably three semesters.”

Ready to win

The team is confident in its chances in the competition.

“This is what we’ve heard- that no other Shell Eco-Marathon Urban Concept hydrogen fuel cell team has been able to meet the minimum 16 mile-per-hour average requirement in years past,” said Brownlowe. “Which would mean we would be the first team to do that. It doesn’t mean we would win, but we’d be the first to qualify.”

“This is exciting,” said Francis. “This is the closest we’ve ever been to getting on the track and competing. We’ve got two weeks to go before we leave. We’ve got some obstacles to overcome. It’s not a done deal, but I think they’re doable. I think we’ll be there, and I think we’ll be competitive.”

Several students on the team are first-year students, including primary driver Sabrina Turner, 19, from Lansdale. The Mechanical Engineering major is a 2022 North Penn High School graduate. She joined the team because she had experience as a North Montco Technical Career Center student and wanted to get back into the Engineering lab. Her background earned her a soldering job on the vehicle, in addition to being a test driver.

“Basically, everything that’s wired up in the front I soldered by hand,” she said.

She described the experience of driving the vehicle as similar to driving a go-kart. “It’s very windy since we don’t have the body on right now, and it’s kind of shaky,” she said, “but it’s basically like driving a go-kart once you get used to it. It’s awesome. It’s so fun.”

Experiential learning

Nathan Mayer, 19, from Souderton, a Mechanical Engineering major and Souderton Area High School graduate, a fabrication and conceptual specialist, was happy to play a part.

“Watching my hard work, everybody’s work come together to make this product that actually works, it’s just amazing to me,” he said.

Joe DeFazio, of Hatfield, and a North Penn High School graduate, and Paul Jacobs, originally from Boyertown and now living in Norristown, who went to online high school, are excited to be on the project too.

“I think it’s great,” said DeFazio. “I think it’s a good opportunity for all of us as students to do more than we would just do in class. I’ve certainly learned a lot of valuable stuff from this program.”

“It’s awesome,” said Jacobs. “The friends I’ve made- if I were just going to class, it never would have been like how it is now. We’re friends here, and we’re learning a ton of stuff.”

Franzine Bagalawis, 19, originally from the Philippines, and who grew up in Guam, before moving to Pennsburg, said she was never really into cars but joined the team because she likes the fabrication process.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to really get to know the workforce,” she said. “Back home in Guam there was no engineering. That’s why I came here to school. I think it’s great that a community college has this type of project.”

Photo caption: Twenty Montgomery County Community College students working on project INNOVA, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered urban concept vehicle, led by Engineering Professor William Brownlowe and Technical Advisor Griff Francis, are headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, April 12-16 to test their design on an infield track during the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas 2023 regional competition. Photo by Eric Devlin

About Montgomery County Community College 
For more than a half-century, Montgomery County Community College has grown with the community to meet the evolving educational needs of Montgomery County. The College’s comprehensive curriculum includes more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs and customized workforce training and certifications. Students enjoy the flexibility of learning at the College’s thriving campuses in Blue Bell and Pottstown, at the Culinary Arts Institute in Lansdale, and online.  

As an Achieving the Dream Leader College of Distinction, the institution is positioned at the vanguard of national efforts to remove barriers to access, improve learning outcomes, and increase completion for all students. The College also is recognized regionally and nationally for its sustainability leadership, work with military veterans, community service and service-learning opportunities, and use of classroom technology. For six consecutive years, MCCC has been named one of the Most Promising Places to Work in Community Colleges in the nation by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development for its commitment to diversity through inclusive learning and work environments, student and staff recruitment and retention practices, and meaningful community service and engagement opportunities. For more information, visit https://www.mc3.edu.

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