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EcoHawks hope beat-up Beetle leads to future of fuel efficiency

It might be difficult to see the future of hybrid automobile efficiency underneath the grime surrounding an unpainted 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

“That’s the fun. By the time we’re done, it’s going to be totally different, and it’s going to be great,” says Lou McKown, a senior in mechanical engineering.

For his senior project, McKown is part of a team called the EcoHawks that is taking the iconic round vehicle and transforming it from a motionless heap to a fully integrated hybrid vehicle by the end of the school year.

“We’re just the first year of this, too,” McKown says. “We hope that the work we do this year will provide the basis for the next year and so on. Our long-term goal is to make a car that can get efficient fuel anywhere in the country, whether it be electric, ethanol, biodiesel, whatever.”

The project is part of a class called Design Project Option E. The class project is the creation of Chris Depcik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who previously worked with Detroit’s auto industry at the University of Michigan. He says the main goal is to try to answer some of the big energy and transportation questions of the day in a way that gives the students real-world experience beyond mechanical engineering.

“There is a whole car culture out there with vehicles that are not going to be produced as hybrids or as biofuel vehicles,” Depcik said. “When this project is a few years down the road, we want to be able to give people a handbook on how to turn their classic car into an efficient machine. Detroit has figured out performance, so efficiency is the big issue now. And with the work these students are doing on this fun, unique kind of project, they will be ready to go into the workforce with a lot of skills they won’t get from sitting in a class with me.”

Those skills become evident during a visit to the Beetle’s home at Das Autohaus, a repair shop in Lawrence. The project has major backing from KU’s Transportation Research Institute. Dave Bach, owner of Das Autohaus, donated the Beetle to the EcoHawks and has provided a workspace for them. The car isn’t much to look at now.

“We stripped it down completely,” says Jason Carter, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering from Overland Park, as he walks around the gray Beetle. “It didn’t run. It didn’t move. We’re taking it completely down, then building it back up.”

Teams of students work on various problems: Three students look in the Beetle’s front-end trunk and discuss how they can stabilize the car once the battery packs are installed; another pair writes on graph paper as they stand over the back bumper.

McKown explains the project and how it’s going so far.

“The biggest issue for us is weight,” he says. “We’re going to be adding battery packs that carry significant weight, and it’s going to affect the mileage we get, so we want it to be light while still passing inspections for road use.”

Another part of the project has been learning about marketing, fundraising and the media. McKown and Carter handle most of the publicity for the project. Carter also runs the group’s Web site,, but all members have been involved on some level.

“It’s really different to have to learn about raising money or finding a part or talking about the project,” says Sunny Sanwar, a senior in mechanical engineering from Kansas City, Mo., as he writes on a notepad. “But those are the kinds of things that are only going to help me after I graduate.”

The plan, Depcik says, is for each class to build on the previous class’s results.

“This isn’t a project that you want to start from scratch each year because the students are going to learn tips, pitfalls and problems from the last group,” he says. “There are cars now that are running at 60 and 70 miles per gallon. We should be shooting for two or three times that. And I think we’ll get there.”

In fact, the stated goal of the project is a vehicle that gets 500 miles per gallon.

But for now, the Beetle sits at Das Autohaus while students send sparks flying trying to split two pieces of metal. The team hopes to have the car painted and out of this space before winter break. They are conscious of Bach’s generosity and want to give him back the space.

As the day’s work winds down, one of the students perks up.

“Want us to start it? We’ve got it running,” he says. The answer, of course, is yes.

A student hops under the car to connect the power. They’ll have to jump start it. It turns over a couple of times unsuccessfully. Then, with a puff of black smoke, success.

The EcoHawks cheer and laugh. In May, they are confident the same process will be a lot more efficient.

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