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On Campus

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Creating Tomorrow´s Ride

Illustration By David ClarkThe cars your grandchildren will drive may not be like James Bond's gadget-laden roadster or the flying coupes in The Jetsons, but they will be smarter, cleaner, and more efficient than the vehicles we drive today. The designs for this new breed of transportation may very well come out of the Graduate Automotive Technology Education (GATE) program.

Recently established at nine universities, the U.S. Department of Energy-funded program is designed specifically to develop the cutting- edge automotive engineering needed for the next century.

Participating schools receive $200,000 to set up multidisciplinary centers in mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering that will be ready to offer graduate-level courses by fall 1999. Each school will also receive $100,000 during the 1999-2000 academic year to help fund five fellows in their centers.

Shelley Launey, DOE GATE program manager, says the time is right for such a project. The trend toward multidisciplinary learning is already established in engineering education, and, Launey says, DOE believes that future U.S. competitiveness in the automobile industry depends on multidisciplinary solutions.

The universities chosen for the GATE program already have proven track records in one of five areas of automotive technology: fuel cells, hybrid-electric drive trains and control systems, direct-injection engines, lightweight materials, and energy storage.

"This was not something for a school to say, 'Oh, we'd like to know more about engines,'" Launey says.

Virginia Tech, for example, has been working on fuel cells for several years. Doug Nelson, the mechanical engineering professor coordinating that GATE project, explains that faculty members and graduate students study such fuel cell propulsion systems as performance, efficiency, and safety in the school's Center for Automotive Fuel Cell Systems, and a new fuel cell systems course will soon be added to the curriculum.

Launey says DOE also looked for schools with strong industry contacts when selecting GATE participants. Center funding beyond 2000 is not guaranteed, though DOE is committed to maintaining support for the fellows, Launey says. DOE funding may continue, but, she explains, "since industry is the ultimate beneficiary here, we expect them to support the centers."

Industry support has already materialized at many of the schools. The University of Maryland, for example, has already put together an industry-based board of executives to offer guidance for the new center, according to David Holloway, that school's GATE coordinator.

The University of Maryland has been working on DOE automobile projects for 10 years, Holloway says, so there is already a lot of interest from potential fellows. "I don't think I will have any problem populating my courses," he says.

Duane Abata, a mechanical engineering professor at Michigan Tech, has similar expectations. One goal of that program, which focuses on direct-injection engines, is to significantly enhance enrollment at the graduate level. "Right now we have about 80 students in master's and Ph.D. programs in mechanical engineering, and about 30 are automotive-related," Abata explains. "We'd like to double that enrollment."

For more information on the GATE program, contact Shelley Launey via e-mail at shelley.launey@ee.doe.gov; or see www.ipd.anl.gov/gate.

    -J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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A Well-Schooled Sneaker

Under the category of "What will they think of next?" you can now add computerized shoes. Smart footwear is the creation of 21-year-old MIT senior Ronald Demon, who wanted a shoe that could prevent sore feet. Illustration by Jack MortensbakThe electrical engineering and computer science major designed a sneaker that automatically adapts to the wearer's needs by adjusting the cushion to suit the pace of the activity. The shoe gets its marching orders from a tiny computer embedded inside the sole.

The harder the wearer works, the softer the cushion becomes, thanks to sensors that regulate the fluid in strategically placed bladders. The electronic sneaker looks like any other footwear except for the flashing light on the sole that indicates the computer is working. "It's not designed to intimidate the user," Demon explains.

The project got its start five years ago when Demon, like many 16-year-olds, was spending many hours on the basketball court. "I would play for two hours and take two hours to recover," says the young man from Miami.

Looking for relief, Demon tried the Reebok Pump. Heavily hyped as a breakthrough in shoe design, the sneakers were equipped with cushioning air sacs that required inflation with each use. But they didn't work for him. "I really hated pumping them up," he says.

So the computer prodigy, who was programming in BASIC at the age of six, decided to come up with his own, computer-aided model. He started by developing a software program, but soon realized that while he had a theoretical concept of how the shoe would work, he didn't have the engineering know-how to refine his idea.

To get the help he needed, he moved the project to nearby Florida International University (FIU), which had an agreement with his high school to provide engineering assistance. FIU gave him access to the equipment he needed to build complex logic circuits. By the time he graduated from high school, he had a workable prototype and had applied for a patent.
But it wasn't until he got to MIT that he could fine-tune his brainchild. Professors there provided technical assistance and he was able to use the school's sophisticated computers to program the shoe's tiny microchips.

Demon received patent number 5,813,142 in September 1998 for a shoe sole with an adjustable support pattern. Because he applied for the patent before enrolling at MIT, he has sole ownership of the shoe design. He is currently entertaining offers from several major athletic shoe companies interested in a licensing agreement.  

The original prototype-size 9˝, a perfect fit for Demon-is at home in Miami under lock and key, though his concerns with security have more to do with hurricanes in storm-prone South Florida than with someone walking away with his project.

But some athletes may soon be playing with his invention. Plans are underway in Cambridge to build nearly two dozen pairs for the MIT basketball team to try during practice. And when the smart shoe does make its way into the neighborhood Foot Locker, consumers won't have to shell out much more than that what they would for most other top-of-the-line gear.

The young entrepreneur is also quick to point out that the shoe's potential reaches far beyond basketball. Because its characteristics can be easily changed by reprogramming, it could be useful for everyone who spends long hours on their feet.

Demon isn't spending all of his time at MIT pursuing his sneaker scheme, of course. The freshman says he's also learning how society views technology and the power it has in our lives. His plan is to get a Ph.D. in computer science and to help people learn to automate their daily tasks with computers.

In the meantime, he expects the computerized shoe to make it through the year 2000 without a hitch. "It's Y2K compliant," he says. "The user won't have to reprogram it or worry about it exploding."

    -Jo Ann Tooley is a freelance writer in Arlington, Virginia.



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