ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Students develop intuitive display for hybrids

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The HEVT software team with its touchscreen

The HEVT software team, from left: Emylee Esteban (BFAVCD ‘15), Alexander Keller (BSEE ’13), Fangfang Oremland (BSEE ’13), Xingjian Ma (BSCPE ’14), and Sultan Alobaishi (BSEEE ‘14, BSCPE ‘14).

Hybrid vehicles are a popular choice for consumers looking to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by decreasing gasoline consumption. Yet many drivers don’t know how to optimize their driving habits to take full advantage of the dual mode hybrid system.

Hoping to solve this problem, ECE students from Virginia Tech’s hybrid electric vehicle team (HEVT) are developing a touchscreen display that makes it easier and more fun for drivers to learn how to maximize their fuel efficiency.

“We needed to display a very complicated system in a way that was simple enough so the user understands on a high level what’s going on and can make adjustments,” says Alexander Keller (BSEE ’13). “We’re implementing an eco-screen that tracks driver history to record how eco-friendly they’re driving.”

Keller serves as the leader of HEVT’s software team, which also includes Fangfang Oremland (BSEE ’13) and Xingjian Ma (BSCPE ’14).

Gamifying hybrid driving

The group is experimenting with different visual themes to display information such as system mode, battery charge, and energy efficiency in a way that is user friendly. One idea involves a blossoming or wilting flower. Another would use a series of Hokie footprints to reward good drivers. “We’re trying to change people’s attitudes and make driving eco-friendly a game,” says Keller.

The HEVT team is participating in year two of EcoCAR 2: Plugging in to the Future, a three-year competition sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition challenges teams to re-engineer a stock Chevrolet Malibu into a hybrid car and reduce fuel consumption and emissions without compromising performance, utility, or safety.

Alexander Keller and Fangfang Oremland

The HEVT team uses a Freescale i.MX 6 board to transmit CAN messages to the touchscreen display.

Last year, HEVT worked on designing and building hybrid components for their car. The software team’s focus was setting up its hardware and learning how to transmit data from a vehicle to a touchscreen using the CAN (Control Area Network) protocol. The team received first place for software design at the year one competition.

HEVT received its vehicle this fall and is removing the stock parts and implementing hybrid components. The software team’s touchscreen will take the place of the car’s stock driver controls.

“Our goal by the end of the semester is to have a minimalistic driver display,” says Keller. “Last year we developed our own driver display, but it was very complicated and no one knew what was being displayed. This year we worked with Emylee Esteban (’15), a graphic design student, to make it more pleasing to the eye and simple to use.” This gave the team experience working with non-engineers on the team.

Hands-on learning

The new touchscreen does more than display CAN messages about energy efficiency — it also controls the vehicle’s radio and AC unit. “We used icons so the user can get to the buttons very quickly so they don’t have to take attention away from driving,” says Oremland.

In addition to gaining programming and embedded systems experience, working on a multidisciplinary team has allowed HEVT’s ECE students to dip their toes in other fields.

“Typically, electrical engineers work on a more abstract level, because you can’t really see electrons. It’s not very hands-on in a sense that you actually see what’s going on in the electrical world,” says Keller. “We actually got to see how a car is built. From building the engine, to installing the battery — it’s very hands-on. What I found most rewarding is seeing this thing come together.”

Keller and Oremland are graduating seniors and have planned ahead to ensure a smooth transition of leadership to Xingjian Ma, the software team’s returning member. “He can teach others what we were trying to do. He can learn from our mistakes,” says Oremland.

Two new students have also been recruited to serve on the software team next year and Oremland hopes that ECE involvement on the HEVT team will continue to grow. “We’re hoping even more people will join next year so they can divide up work and do more things, such as integrate an iPod or GPS.”