While Focused on Auto Industry, MSU's CAVS Broadens its Scope

May 27, 2015

From The Dispatch- By Slim Smith

Now with a regular staff of 60 full-time employees and 240 professors, faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students, Mississippi State University's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems has grown enormously since it was founded in 2000 as part of the state's efforts to recruit Nissan to the state.

It has also outgrown its name.

What began as an automotive engineering-based center now uses its resources for applications that go beyond the automotive industry, CAVS deputy director Zach Rowland told the Columbus Rotary during the club's regular meeting Tuesday at Lion Hills Center.

"The truth is, we are involved in research with just about every college on campus," Rowland said. "While we do research for the automobile industry -- our tire-heating study is one example -- we also use our research capabilities in a broad range of areas, including what we call human factor research."

That umbrella encompasses everything from engineering research geared toward developing a football helmet that reduces head injuries to developing systems to analyze and reduce driving distractions, improving how humans interact with robotics in the workplace, research in occupational ergodynamics and augmenting virtual reality simulators to make them more effective.

To achieve all this, CAVS relies on dozens of highly-sophisticated research tools, including its new Shadow supercomputer.

"Shadow is now the 11th fastest academic computing system in the country," Rowland said. "To give you an idea of just how fast that is, if a single person was doing this, 24/7, 365 days a year, it would take him 19 million years to do what Shadow can do in a second."

The system's parallel computing system, Rowland said, allows MSU researches to break down complex problems into small components.

"We're eating the elephant one bite at a time, rather than trying to eat the whole elephant at once," Rowland said.

Although CAVS conducts research in a broad range of disciplines, it's "bread and butter" remains the work it does in the automotive industry.

Its achievements in engineering research competitions such as Challenge X, EcoCar, EcoCar II and now EcoCar III, have solidified the center's national reputation as one of the leaders in developing better, more fuel efficient cars.

CAVS research in the field goes beyond experimentation, though.

"We are a leader in light-weight material for automobile applications," Rowland said. "One of the best examples is the engine cradle we developed for the Corvette. The original engine cradle weighed 75 pounds, but we developed an alloy cradle that reduced that weight by 66 percent and Chevrolet used that until 2013. I've heard they plan to go back to that cradle because they aren't happy with the one that replaced it."

For years, CAVS has been among the many research organizations doing pioneering research in developing "electric cars."

"Now, we are going at it from the other direction," Rowland said. "There is going to be a need for internal combustions engines for the foreseeable future, so we are looking at how we can improve the internal combustion engine by making it compatible with those alternate forms."

For example, CAVS is researching a method that would allow a car's internal combustion component to "kick on" only when sudden acceleration is needed. It is also working using internal combustion as backup system for hybrids when those cars battery reserves are depleted. The system not only takes over, but can recharge the batteries. CAVS research into a system that would marry both diesel fuel and propane in the trucking industry is also very promising, he said, reducing emissions to "almost zero."

Over the years, through its research, CAVS has developed systems that now carry its license.

It has not proven to be a big revenue source, however.

"As far as that goes, we're still looking for our equivalent to 'Gatorade,'" Rowland said.