Overcoming Challenges in the Age of COVID-19

Published: October 30, 2020

University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team Rethinks its Strategy

The University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) is represented by engineering and business students from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University with backgrounds in controls development, electrical and mechanical engineering, communications, autonomous vehicles, user interface design and other fields of study. (This photo was taken before Covid-19-related restrictions.)

How do you re-engineer a powertrain, when you don’t have access to the physical components? The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into activities of engineering and business students at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University who are competing in the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge. These students are re-engineering a 2019 Chevrolet Blazer, but for more than six months, they have had no access to their competition vehicle.

Instead of halting all activities, the University of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) decided to change up its strategy. By focusing on the software side of development, they are moving forward and making progress.

“Our team quickly learned that we could do a great deal with the software alone, so while our focus shifted, we only experienced minor setbacks,” said Teodor Crnobrnja, UWAFT Propulsion Controls & Modeling Co-Lead. “We began to investigate automated testing options, and we were able to improve our meeting strategies, testing procedures, task breakdown and long-term plans.”

The EcoCAR Mobility Challenge is four-year competition that gives engineering students real-world, hands-on experience in developing future mobility solutions. UWAFT is one of 12 North American university teams vying to improve the energy efficiency, safety and consumer appeal of the 2019 Chevrolet Blazer by introducing advanced propulsion systems, as well as connected and automated vehicle technologies. The teams are currently in year 3 (2020-2021) of the competition.

Unique Re-Design Features

The Controls Team troubleshoots the high-voltage battery pack installed in the trunk of the Chevrolet Blazer.

The UWAFT is re-engineering its competition vehicle into a fully functional hybrid drive system. Their vehicle is powered by a rear axle electric motor. With this unique configuration, student engineers working on the controls side can focus on developing a robust energy management strategy that maximizes fuel economy, while still delivering the driving performance that consumers have come to expect.

With their re-engineered design, energy consumption will be minimized by a custom thermal management system and by the motor's ability to regenerate during braking. Additionally, the vehicle includes a custom perception system and a controller to achieve SAE Level 2 autonomy.

“We are also adding a human-machine interface that will allow users to interact with driver assistance features,” said Cole Tofflemire, UWAFT Propulsion Controls & Modeling Co-Lead. “We hope this will improve the overall user experience.”

To thoroughly vet these custom-engineered features, including vehicle integration tasks, the team is following a verification and validation (V&V) methodology.

“We are adhering to the V-model for software development,” said Tofflemire. “We ensure that our code is fully validated in a software environment before moving on to hardware testing. If at any point our code fails our standardized requirements and test cases, then we reevaluate in a software environment until it has been validated on hardware and/or in the vehicle. We are using dSPACE tools and equipment alongside MATLAB/Simulink. The process is incredibly streamlined.” 

Overcoming Current and Future Challenges

With limited access to hardware and restrictions on carrying out work in-person due to COVID-19, the team is facing challenges that go way beyond a normal competition year.

“We are at the stage where significant hardware testing must be conducted to further validate our software development, but at the same time, in-person work must be kept to a minimum,” said Ashad Bhatti, UWAFT Project Manager. “However, we are investing significant resources into streamlining our hardware testing process through tools such as AutomationDesk. With an established workflow and continuous integration processes, we hope to eliminate the need to conduct in-person testing prior to the vehicle-in-the-loop stage.”

In trying to get their vehicle’s motor to operate and make sure all systems are functioning properly, team members have spent many back-to-back days working on propulsion control issues. Testing has been key to pinpointing and resolving issues. Currently, the team reports that rear vehicle systems are running, but many tests still have to be performed for systems in the front of the car.

“New components require different feedback between the control modules within the vehicle, and that's one of our team’s current challenges,” said Teodor Crnobrnja. “To be fully operational, each module needs to see the proper data, otherwise the car won't be moving anytime soon.”

UWAFT Utilizing Simulation Tools from dSPACE

During a training session held at dSPACE, UWAFT students Ryan Tanary and Joe Ye establish digital & analog interfacing utilizing dSPACE MicroAutoBox II and dSPACE HIL hardware with a RTICANMM block set.

To aid the team with tasks related to software controls development, the UWAFT is using a dSPACE MicroAutoBox II rapid prototyping system and a standardized dSPACE hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulator, along with dSPACE ControlDesk experiment software and the dSPACE AutomationDesk test authoring and automation tool.

The MicroAutoBox II is being used to develop the vehicle’s hybrid supervisory controller, which communicates with several off-the-shelf electronic control units (ECUs), as well as automated vehicle hardware. The HIL simulator is being used to simulate the ECUs, prior to in-vehicle testing. Bhatti said these hardware products, along with ControlDesk and AutomationDesk, allow for robust hardware-in-the-loop testing.

Moving from Software to Hardware with Ease

The tight integration that exists between dSPACE tools and the MATLAB and Simulink environment has allowed the team to take its software to the hardware environment with ease.

“This is a luxury not many get to experience,” said Crnobrnja “This allows us to do rapid testing between the simulated and real-time environments, and it gives the team confidence that operation will be successful on the actual vehicle.”

By coupling the HIL simulator with the MicroAutoBox II, team members said they can get their simulations validated within minutes. And with AutomationDesk features, they can bring their testing and verification activities to another level, making remote and local development more streamlined than ever. As the competition moves forward, the team plans to maximize the potential of all these tools to aid in its development and testing procedures.

“The tools provided by dSPACE have continued to exceed our team’s expectations,” said Bhatti. “These tools are powerful when used correctly, and once you get past a slight learning curve, operation is smooth and straightforward.”

Searching for a Real-World EcoCAR Experience

The EcoCAR competition is demanding, as teams encounter challenges around every corner, but this is what makes the event so appealing to young engineers. Members of the UWAFT share why those chose to compete in the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge:

"When I came to the University of Waterloo, I didn't want to just get my degree and move on without going through some real-life challenges. I wanted to find a place where I could constantly challenge myself. I found that environment with the UWAFT. It is a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Teodor Crnobrnia, UWAFT Propulsion Controls & Modeling Co-Lead

“I was looking for an opportunity to dive deep into tough engineering challenges and allow the gaps in my knowledge to be filled by tackling problems head-on. It became clear that joining EcoCAR would be the best way to accomplish this. EcoCAR produces people who are not only talented in their technical domains, but skilled in managing, mentoring and working in a dynamic team setting. From day one, I could see these qualities in the leads, and I strived to do the same.”

Cole Tofflemire, UWAFT Propulsion Controls & Modeling Co-Lead

“I decided to get involved with the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge as a freshman. There were many automotive design teams being advertised on campus, but EcoCAR struck me due to the variety of challenges presented to its participants, in a variety of fields. Since then, the fast-paced environment has hooked me to working every term I have the chance to.”

Ryan Tanary, UWAFT Propulsion UWAFT Connected Autonomous Vehicle Team Lead

“Before joining EcoCAR, I had just finished an internship in a battery research lab. I saw the team as an opportunity to learn more about the products my research would end up in, as well as provide me with valuable engineering experience I felt I was lacking. EcoCAR ultimately provided that and a fantastic group of friends with which I've had the pleasure of tackling some of my toughest challenges during my undergrad.”

Haocheng Zhang, UWAFT Hybrid Vehicles Control Lead Developer

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