Facing four months of dismal summer job prospects in 2009, a group of UBC Engineering students put their talents to work, hoping to gain the all-important “hands-on” experience. Their idea—build their own electric vehicle.

“We’re starting to realize what impact fossil-fuel vehicles have,” says fourth-year ECE student Ricky Gu, president of and key driver behind the UBC Electric Car Club (UBCECC) http://www.ubcecc.com . The UBCECC sees pollution reduction as the key benefit of electrical vehicles (EVs), lauding the EV system as being “so simple and elegant and green.” Motivated to make a difference, club members were put in touch with Mining Engineering Professor John Meech, an expert in process controls. Meech enthusiastically took on an advisory role, and was able to join UBCECC under the UBC Thunderbird Robotics club umbrella http://ubcthunderbird.com.

With funds from the UBC Engineering Professional Activities Fund, the UBCECC bought a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle to convert—“UBC engineers have a quite a reputation for hanging VW Beetles off bridges, and we thought it would be kind of neat to drive one across for a change,” says Meech, smiling. Initially the team was composed of Electrical Engineering students, but interest grew and the club soon included Mechanical Engineering, Integrated Engineering, Engineering Physics and even Engineering graduate students.

By November 2009, the club had its car—the “E-Beetle”—purring around Vancouver, connecting with local EV associations. But the UBCECC’s ultimate goal was to enter the Zero Emissions Race http://www.zero-race.com, to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on its own electricity. To participate, the car needed over 10,000 kilometres of testing under its belt. The UBCECC mapped out a trip from Vancouver to Halifax—the vast country giving them ample ground to test the E-Beetle’s mettle—and from Halifax planned to ship the car to Switzerland in time for the race. However, one month into planning, the race was called off (later to be reinstated but too late for UBCECC). Undeterred, they decided to go ahead with a cross-country trek. Gu had felt confident, saying, “We built the car pretty much from scratch, so if anything did go wrong, we could fix it.”

With 96 lithium iron phosphate batteries donated by Thudersky Batteries, and a three-phase AC induction motor, the E-Beetle was supported remotely by a core team of six members. Their first hurdle would be the demanding Coquihalla Highway, with its steep elevation the most challenging stretch of highway on the entire cross-country trek; the E-Beetle completed this leg of its trip with juice to spare.

No epic journey is without trials – an incorrect charging harness resulted in a 50-percent increase in charging times, requiring a fix in Toronto; they were delayed two days in Montreal waiting for Hurricane Earl to pass; and a loose bolt resulted in the drive shaft nearly falling off outside Quebec City.

In 14 days, using existing infrastructure, the E-Beetle completed the first ever cross-Canada trip in an electric vehicle, with a range of 300 km at 100 km/h and 500 km at 50 km/h. Their 6,472-kilometres feat was so successful that media in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, China and Germany covered the story. Their next goal is to “Circuit the Continent Electrically—90 North American Cities in 90 Days.”

Gu attributes their success to “never giving up” and to the incredible support the UBCECC continues to receive from UBC’s President’s Office http://president.ubc.ca, Vice President of Finance Office http://www.vpfinance.ubc.ca and Faculty of Applied Science, as well as from private donors and sponsors.  Meech credits the team as an “amazing group of people, to work together and coordinate the trip.”  He also credits the team’s success to contributions from alumni – Bill Chyplyk (BASc ’70 Electrical Engineering) and Curtis Lapadat (BASc ’90 Engineering Physics).  Both exemplify what “giving back” is all about and have been untiring in their time and direct assistance in solving technical issues and contributing in-kind support.

When asked what it feels like to drive an EV, Gu lights up and says, “You get something called an EV grin”—the joyous expression of EV drivers, knowing their vehicle isn’t burning fossil fuel.

Reprinted with permission from Ingenuity, UBC Faculty of Applied Science