Burns submitted his proposal to the California Energy Commission (CEC), which suggested that he do "something entirely different from what I'd proposed. They wanted to see us put together a package-delivery vehicle, like a UPS truck or something like that." The CEC pointed out that, unlike the average individual car buyer, "People who are buying fleet vehicles are looking at the bottom line" and might be more receptive to a radical new design that got much better gas mileage. And while Burns conceded the point, he couldn't imagine getting a group of students to work on a UPS truck. The compromise he offered was to equip his test vehicle with a power plant robust enough so that the lessons learned in developing it could later be applied to a heavier vehicle. "It helped me justify the fact that we were going to develop a hot rod," Burns explains.
In the end, the CEC awarded Burns's team about $285,000; less than half what Burns had asked for, but enough to proceed. The commission also gave a half-million-dollar grant to Andrew Frank's team at UC Davis, which planned to retrofit a Ford Taurus to make it more fuel-efficient. Burns disapproved of the approach. "It was wrong to use public money to help fix the flaws in a vehicle that a billion-dollar company couldn't get right the first time," he said. "Why would I want to do that? I can't really design the vehicle to do its best work."
Burns knew that starting from scratch on the hybrid car would mean he and his students would have to solve more problems. "But then you learn the real things you need to learn, the things no one can teach you," he believed. "The things that only the complete system engineering can give back to you."
Burns says it wouldn't have been possible for him and his students to handle the challenge without a powerful computer program that enabled the San Diego State team to design their car on a computer, then evaluate, analyze, and modify ideas before the students ever began buying and assembling components in the real world. "We used techniques that at the time many large companies still had not adopted," Burns says. "That gave us advance knowledge of whether there was any chance our designs would work and where the real difficulties were going to be. We could make sure we could afford things. Make sure everything fit. Perform lots of checks, like: Where is the center of gravity of this vehicle?" On a computer, Burns's team could assess how the car would behave and handle. Before the advent of such software, automotive engineers had to build their creations first and then see how they drove: "Some really bad vehicles have been built that way. And they had to take the torch to them and try to make them better. We never had to go through that because we managed the process with the best professional tools and technologies -- extraordinary for a university at the time."
As the design process unfolded, Burns and his students began shopping for key components. They needed a fuel-efficient engine with enough power to cruise down the freeway while turning a motor that regenerated electricity in the batteries. Those two tasks would require about 35 to 40 horsepower. They wanted an engine that was being mass-produced, so that they wouldn't have to worry about availability or reliability. "That narrowed the choice down," the professor says. "There were only three candidates."
One was a marine diesel engine. A second was being produced for an experimental aircraft. The final possibility was a turbo-charged direct-injection diesel engine being developed by Volkswagen, which had resolved to produce a vehicle that could go one hundred kilometers on just three liters of fuel. "That works out to be 79.92 miles per gallon," Burns says, "almost the same as what we were working toward."
Burns knew of "people who would say the emissions from diesel engines are something we couldn't live with." Diesels produce more oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter than do gasoline engines, and in the U.S., oxides of nitrogen and particulates are the pollutants people have most deplored, "especially air-resource-board members who run the air policy in urban areas." (Outside of the United States, automakers had focused their attentions on carbon-dioxide emissions, which are thought to be a major cause of global warming.) Burns was confident that the new designs would soon make diesel engines far cleaner. "We said to ourselves, 'There will be people in Europe who are going to solve some of the [diesel] emissions issues.' " He explains, "And in fact the Europeans are solving those problems as we speak."
It was important to Burns that the car use a fuel "that you could get at a pump -- because the majority of people won't buy a vehicle that you can't readily obtain fuel for." But one of his team members "made it her mission to remind us that there were biofuels out there, and they were going to come on strong." As a result, the team began to count on using a biofuel (such as soybean oil) at least part of the time. No modification of the diesel engine would be necessary to do that. "Most oil crops will burst into flame if you compress them and heat them up. And that's all you're doing. That's what an engine does."
Having settled on VW's new technology, the San Diego State team had to order an entire Lupo (as the German vehicle had been christened). It cost $15,000, "Relatively expensive for the kinds of benefits it gives you in fuel economy," Burns says, adding that the "square, funky-looking microcompact" accelerated like a turtle. "We've got those kinds of cars around, and Americans don't want to buy them. They're not fun to look at. They're not fun to drive. They don't go fast." Still, the team hoped that, once they'd extracted it from the Lupo and transplanted it into their car, the German engine would have a different life.