Like a movie star arriving on Oscar night, Penn State President Eric Barron cruised to a stop surrounded by cameras.
“No one has ever taken my picture coming out of a car before,” he said, stepping out smiling to clicking shutters.
That’s because he never had driven a stock 2013 Chevrolet Malibu redesigned into a plug-in hybrid electric car.
Barron got behind the wheel of the high-tech Chevy on Thursday to boost its builder, the Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team, as the students prepare for the third and final year of the North American engineering competition, EcoCAR 2: Plugging Into the Future.
Penn State’s new president, in just his second week on the job, drove across campus from Old Main to the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute’s hybrid electric vehicle garage.
He joined a reception to bid Penn State’s team, the competition’s reigning champion from year two, good luck in upcoming evaluations at the General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford, Mich., and then at a Washington, D.C., site.
After Barron stepped out of the hybrid, team members Ben Sattler and Chris Monaco popped the hood, allowing the president to check out the futuristic engine.
Peering in, Barron listened intently to a tour of the ethanol-powered and electric components.
“It’s really exciting,” Sattler, a junior and co-team leader, said of the president’s visit. “Just to get that recognition and support is great.
“We put hours and hours of work into this thing, so having that support is really nice, especially right before the competition. It just increases the excitement level a little bit.”
Barron’s predecessor, Rodney Erickson, drove an earlier version of the car last October on a similar visit congratulating the team for winning the competition’s second year.
“It’s really cool to see the old president and the new president come and both be amazed,” said Monaco, who just graduated but will stay at Penn State as a mechanical engineering graduate student.
The presidents had similar reactions, Monaco said.
“You can kind of tell when they get into the vehicle, they really don’t know what to expect. They don’t know if it’s safe or (like) ‘Am I going to ride in a garage project?’
“But they get into the vehicle and it starts, and you can tell that moment where they’re like, ‘Wow, this is just like a car that I would drive.’ Then they start having fun with it.”
For Barron, the moment came when he pulled up to a campus intersection full of students fascinated by the white car plastered with sponsor logos.
“He was looking around, and all of a sudden you see him have this kind of smile, and that’s the moment,” Monaco said. “That’s what we work for. We want to have this car be something you could find in a showroom one day, and it’s something someone would want to buy and want to drive.”
In his remarks, Barron, a former Penn State dean, said that the team’s work reminded him of a comment at a capital campaign celebration one day after he returned to University Park. A student talked about getting up in the morning and thinking about what can be done more and better.
“I thought to myself, ‘That is exactly the Penn State that I remember, and part of the reason I decided I wanted to come back,’ ” Barron said.
“This is ‘What can I do more and what can I do better?’ This epitomizes the success of this vehicle and all the (past competition) vehicles that are here.”
Penn State has participated in the competition since 1988.
Barron also praised the students’ dedication and teamwork. About 50 undergraduate and graduate students from the engineering, business and communications colleges collaborate to finance, build and publicize the car.
“I’m sort of struck that this is an example of student engagement at its finest,” Barron said.
After the second year of the current competition, Penn State earned top honors for fastest autocross time, best communications plan, best media report, best acceleration for zero to 60 mph and 50 to 70 mph, best braking, best dynamic consumer acceptability and best drive quality.
Teams from 15 North American universities are competing.
In the first year, teams focus on designing the propulsion technologies for their future vehicles. Then, in the second year, they receive their GM-donated cars, remove stock parts and work toward building a functional hybrid.
The goal is to meet at least a 65 percent standard for consumer acceptability.
“You want it to run, but it doesn’t have to be quite perfect,” Sattler said.
Preparing for dynamic tests in Michigan and presentations to auto industry executives and engineers in Washington, D.C., the team this year fine-tuned the car’s engineering and also added creature comforts such as air conditioning and cruise control.
“You want it almost ready for the showroom,” Sattler said. “That’s really the point where we’re at now.”
Monaco said the pragmatic focus of EcoCAR 2 distinguishes it from other competitions.
“There are a lot of competitions that try to make something that reduces fuel consumption, that’s eco-friendly,” he said. “But there are a lot of compromises that are made along the way. It’s almost like: What’s the point of reducing fuel consumption or emissions if no one is going to buy or drive the car?”
After taking his hybrid spin, Barron drove home his message of encouragement.
“Doesn’t it feel good to be in first place?” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed that much more than any other position on the ladder. I wish you great success in bringing in the next trophy.”