UCCS using grant money to advance electric auto research

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American Electric Vehicles in Palmer Lake looks to bring electric shuttle buses to market in the U.S. in early 2012.

Colorado Springs might seem a long way away from the auto-manufacturing hub of Michigan, but there is more progress being made here toward engineering the next generation of electric vehicles than many outside the industry might expect.

“People in the know, know we exist,” said UCCS professor of control systems engineering Gregory Plett. “That’s nice.”

It’s especially nice now that the university is on the receiving end of a $954,000 grant to develop a series of certificate, masters- and Ph.D-level courses around electric vehicle engineering. UCCS is sharing the Department of Energy grant with CU Boulder. While Boulder students and professors work on electric drivetrain engineering, UCCS will focus on battery technology.

The two schools are the only ones west of the Mississippi to receive the Graduate Automotive Technology Education grant.

The other schools in the country using DOE money to work on electric vehicle development are Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, Purdue University, Clemson University in South Carolina, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Alabama Birmingham.

Plett said the classes will all be offered online and will likely draw high-level engineers from all over the country and even abroad.

UCCS has a remote-controlled battery lab, where students will be able conduct tests on different types of battery packs from anywhere in the world with Internet access.

Plett is working with students to learn about the chemistry of batteries and to find out what causes them to age and lose efficiency so they can find ways to prevent batteries from degrading. Much of the work the university will be doing with the new grant funds is in line with work it was already doing.

UCCS has partnerships with Texas Instruments, the military and the National Science Foundation doing battery research.

There are also a number of businesses in town where graduates of the program would be able to look for work and whose employees are already participating in some of UCCS’s battery research.

“There’s more here than people would probably think,” Plett said.

One of those companies is American Electric Vehicles, a company in Palmer Lake that has engineered an 18-passenger electric shuttle bus it aims to bring to the market by early 2012.

Company founder Dan Rivers helped to start Compact Power, an advanced battery company, in Monument in 2000. The company grew and some of the other principles decided it would be a good idea to move operations to Michigan.

“And that made sense,” Rivers said. “But I live here and I wanted to keep living here.”

Compact Power is behind the battery technology used in the Chevrolet Volt, Rivers said.

He helped Compact Power remotely for a few years before he unwound himself and started to look for a new venture.

He created American Electric Vehicles in 2005 and tried out a few technologies, including electric Jeeps for military operations and electric unmanned aircrafts, before settling on the shuttle buses.

The shuttle is designed to travel 80 to 130 miles on a single charge and it’s ideal for repeatable routes made by airport and rental car shuttles. It will be able charge up in just 10 to 20 minutes using commercial grade chargers, Rivers said.

AEV has already built a prototype in China and is now looking for investors to help bring it stateside for distribution.

While the upfront cost of the shuttle will be more than double the average cost of a diesel shuttle, the operating costs will be a fraction. Not only will the fueling expense be nominal, there is also no routine maintenance needed for an electric engine, Rivers said.

“It’s also going to be clean and green and good for the environment and all those things people talk about but don’t want to pay for,” Rivers said.

He and partners expect most customers to be interested in leasing options instead of buying into a risky new technology, which will spread out the up-front expense.

“That’s our business case,” Rivers said. “We expect the total operating costs (including the lease) to be about 20 percent less with our technology than with a standard diesel shuttle.”