For most students, a free 2013 Chevy Malibu might sound like reason to celebrate; for UT's EcoCAR2 team, however, it's just something to dismantle in the basement of Dougherty.

As part of their senior project, the group of engineers is competing in EcoCAR2, a three-year-long advanced vehicle technology competition sponsored by the Department of Energy and General Motors.

"In the first year you design the vehicle, and in the second year you build the vehicle," said Katelynn Routh, the communication manager on the project. "The third year is about refining it."

Routh, a senior in communications and political science, said the team is currently in year two and has already begun dismantling the Malibu, which was donated by General Motors. They plan to implement the designs of last year's team, creating a series-parallel plug-in hybrid electric vehicle that will run on electricity and E85, a blend of ethanol and gasoline.

The team members change from year to year, as each class of seniors works on either design, implementation or revision. Although working on the EcoCAR2 project may not mean seeing it through to the final product, Routh said that the experience is an important career step.

"A big factor of it is to train these engineers," she said. "The way that the competition is modeled is actually off of General Motors vehicle design program. (The engineers) design, build and revise the cars; that's exactly how General Motors does it. So a lot of the engineers are hired by General Motors."

John Utley was one of those hires after his work on the team last year. While currently pursuing his master's in science and mechanical engineering, he serves as the EcoCAR2 team leader and graduate research assistant. After this summer, he will begin his work on hybrid battery applications in General Motors' Global Battery Systems Laboratory.

Utley said that the change from year to year poses unique challenges to UT's team.

"It is difficult having to deal with the turnover from year to year," he said. "Some teams aren't structured the way that we are, but we like to limit the outsiders who just look on. So by setting it up to have the senior design group only work on it, it provides all hands on deck."

He described a boot camp process where the new batch of seniors read through all the reports from the previous year during the first week of the fall semester.

"We had 600 pages worth of documentation of all the work that we did last year, on top of all the computer models and simulations that we had performed and developed," Utley said. "It's a difficult process."

Despite the difficulties, UT has performed well in similar competitions, winning the 1989 Methanol Marathon, the 1990 Methanol Challenge, the 1991 Natural Gas Challenge and the 1995 Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) Challenge. Scattered among the overall victories are various 1st place finishes in specific events like dynamic handling, towing and acceleration.

"We placed 6th overall in year one of EcoCAR2. Our mechanical team's presentation got 2nd place at the Year 1 Competition," Utley said.

The highly competitive field features 15 universities, including Mississippi State University, The Ohio State University and Virginia Tech. The best design will win grant money and an award, as well as potentially influence future car designs. Routh said that car companies sometimes do take factors from the design and implement them in their own products.

The team works out of the basement of the Dougherty Engineering building, which is outfitted with a vehicle lift. They also have an offsite dynamometer off White Avenue, allowing them to simulate vehicular driving inside the lab and take measurements.

Utley predicted a completed final product by the May deadline but admitted likely obstacles.

"There will undoubtedly be some late nights and some unforeseen challenges that will pop up here and there," he said. "We have a great group of sponsors for the competition and faculty advisers who have been through this time and time again. Having their expertise available to us really is a great advantage for our team."

For those interested in applying for next year's team, there is an information session this afternoon at 5:30 p.m. in Room 225 of the University Center. Utley recommended it for engineers and business students alike.

"Eco-Cars really provides a great opportunity for all of these students to get their foot in the door of the automotive engineering field," Utley said. "And not only for the engineers, but for the communications students and the business (students), it gives them a great, real-world environment and project with deliverables and high expectations."