Future car heads for Detroit

February 17, 1997


Staff Writer

The car of tomorrow, which Williamsport native Fred Householder helped build, will leave from Washington, D.C., today on a six-city "Driving the Future" tour.

Householder, 24, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, was captain of the team that in 1994 built the "Hybrid Electric Vehicle," a modified Saturn that runs on ethanol and electricity.

He and three other students will arrive in Detroit on Friday with their professor, David C. Holloway, who is making the trip to be installed as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.


The car, which took about 10 months to build, won 11 of 16 first-place awards in a 1994 competition that featured designs from top engineering students from across the country.

"We were lucky enough to win almost every category and win the overall design," said Householder, a 1990 graduate of Williamsport High School.

The car looks like an ordinary 1991 Saturn, but runs on a fuel mixture that's only 15 percent gasoline. The rest of the fuel is a blend of ethanol, a product that can be produced from corn grown in Maryland.

The car also has a 155-volt battery pack that takes up part of the trunk. A sophisticated computer system automatically switches on the car's electric motor when more power is needed. When the car is running on ethanol fuel alone, the motor serves as a generator that automatically recharges the batteries.

The increased efficiency of the engine results in energy savings and reduced auto emissions, Householder said.

The car gets about 38 miles per gallon in the city and 58 on the highway, he said.

This compares with the low 30s for city driving and high 30s on the highway for some regular Saturns, he said.

As an added benefit, Householder said it is powered by renewable energy sources, such as corn, instead of gasoline, a petroleum product made from non-renewable resources.

Holloway said cars such as the one he worked on represent the first step toward revolutionary new vehicles Americans will be driving early in the next century.

The SAE, the Department of Energy and auto manufacturers sponsor contests like the "Hybrid Electric Vehicle Challenge" in part to motivate students who in the future will be the engineers designing cars, he said.

The contests are similar to others his students have entered over the years. Projects have included building robots and designing alternative-fuels off-road vehicles.

This contest struck a chord, Holloway said, because it presented the same challenges facing auto makers.

"This is an exciting one because it's so real," he said. "Everybody can relate to a car. We know what it is. We know what to expect from it."

For Householder, who will earn his mechanical engineering graduate degree in May, the project has deepened his interest in a career he intends to pursue.

"There's a lot of opportunity out there in this field," he said. "I used it to graduate but got a whole lot more from it."

Including in-kind contributions and donated money, Householder estimated the team's car cost about $150,000 to produce.

"We tore it completely apart and replaced virtually every component with our own," he said.

Householder said the car, which has about 2,000 miles on it, has not lost anything in the way of drivability. He guessed - admittedly a rough estimate - that the car could be marketed for about $24,000.

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