The chassis that’s sitting in a workroom on the campus of San Diego State University is painted a shade of red you’d expect to see on the lips of an attention-starved woman. On a car, the color conjures up speed, sass, and power. But this car’s looks are deceptive. Although it can blast from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in less than five seconds, a single gallon of fuel can propel the vehicle 80 miles. The engine is augmented by a battery-powered motor, which can be recharged by plugging a cord into an ordinary wall socket. And the engine fuel? You can run it on diesel if that’s convenient. But soybean oil works just as well.
San Diego State University Professor Jim Burns says people have asked him where they could buy a car like this. "Nowhere," he has to say. When Burns and his team of engineering students designed and built the car -- which they called the "Enigma" -- they weren't trying to develop a commercial product. Instead they wanted to prove that it was possible to make an automobile that used no fossil fuels, got phenomenal mileage, and looked and performed like a race car. Four years later, Burns and a new team of students are attempting to transform Chevrolet's Equinox into the kind of SUV even an environmentalist could love. Their work is part of the Challenge X competition, which is being cosponsored by General Motors and the Department of Energy. Theirs is one of 17 teams, and hardly among the front-runners.
"There are teams with $5 million research labs devoted to automotive design and manufacturing," Burns told me recently. "And there are teams that are near major metropolitan centers that have the full support of everybody involved." At Mississippi State University, one hundred students and a half-dozen faculty members have pitched in to work on that school's entry. At San Diego State, Burns and one other professor are directing about a dozen young people. Much to their dismay, neither the university nor the larger San Diego community has offered much in the way of financial support.
Nevertheless, Burns's efforts have commanded the admiration of America's alternative-vehicle cognoscenti. "What Burns is doing is equal to or better than 75 or 80 percent of the other guys," Andrew Frank told me. A professor at the University of California, Davis, who's been building hybrid vehicles for more than 30 years, Frank is leading his own Challenge X team. "They're in the ball game," he says of Burns's team.
Jim Burns is a tall, trim man, 42 and balding. He sometimes looks tired and harassed, but all signs of fatigue disappear when he talks about cars, especially hybrids. As a teenager, Burns moved to Pennsylvania to live with his father, who worked as an auto mechanic. "He owned his own car-repair business in the shop below our house," Burns explains. With his father's help, Burns rebuilt the engine of his first car and helped his dad "figure out electrical problems" in customers' vehicles.
Later, Burns enrolled at Pennsylvania State. "Composite materials were the hot topic," Burns recalls, and after graduation, he worked for General Dynamics in Texas, developing composite materials for military aircraft. But Burns never forgot his first love: In his spare time, he bought a kit and started building a replica of the silver Porsche 550 Spyder James Dean took his last drive in. Burns was still working on it when he decided to leave the aerospace world and return to academia.
"Working in a big place like that I saw a lot of complacency," Burns says. "It just seemed like I would fossilize there. It wasn't the bold challenge that I wanted."
Burns entered the University of Delaware Ph.D. program in engineering in 1989, and he was finishing up his doctorate when he got an offer to join the mechanical engineering faculty at San Diego State, where he expected to continue his work with composite materials. But a few months after his arrival on campus, he heard a lecture by the Oxford don and experimental physicist Amory B. Lovins and had an epiphany. Lovins, who was known as "the father of the hydrogen economy" for his role in promoting fuel-cell research, spoke about composite materials carmakers could use to build lighter cars and argued that, if carmakers supplemented or replaced gasoline engines with electric motors, a 200-mile-per-gallon vehicle was possible. "It was inspiring," Burns recalls.
Another person who felt galvanized by Lovins's message was Preston Lowrey, the new chairman of San Diego State's mechanical engineering department, who started talking to faculty members about forming a team to develop vehicles with higher fuel economy and lower emissions. Because of Burns's background in composite materials and his automotive interests, the young professor was invited to participate.
But in August of 1996, a bizarre tragedy derailed those plans: Lowrey and two other San Diego State professors had gathered in a laboratory on campus to hear a 36-year-old graduate student named Frederick Martin Davidson defend his master's thesis. Unbeknownst to them, Davidson had become convinced that the professors were conspiring against him. As the session was beginning, Davidson, who had once served in the Army, walked over to a first-aid kit hanging on the wall, removed a nine-millimeter pistol he had hidden there earlier that day, and opened fire, killing the 44-year-old Lowrey and two colleagues from the engineering department.
"I knew him," Burns says of Davidson, who would receive three consecutive life terms in prison without possibility of parole. "He seemed a bit volatile, but no more so than other people under the stress of trying to become educated."
"Our plans, our visions got put on hold for a while," Burns continues. But after about a year and a half, an urge "to do something meaningful in the wake of such senselessness" stirred a group of students and faculty members back into action. Burns started "to think deeply about what we could do as a university to make a difference," and continuing the vehicle-development project seemed like a fitting memorial to his fallen colleagues. One thing that seemed clear was, "We had to have some lofty goals."