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Archive for Saturday, January 22, 2011

Competition lets KU students try to solve electric-car problem

January 22, 2011

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Before Wednesday, Brian Segebrecht knew little about electric cars.

Actually, it was more like “zero,” Segebrecht said.

After a steep and sleepless learning curve, Segebrecht and his three teammates pitched a plan Friday to Westar Energy on how the company could help foster the growth of the electric-car market.

“There was a lot of online research, but the most efficient way to do research was speaking and interviewing local experts in Lawrence,” teammate Stephen Rempala said.

The group was participating in KU’s annual MBA Case Competition, a program in which teams of four are presented with a problem from a sponsoring company and have 48 hours to present a solution. The winner has the chance to compete in the Big 12 MBA Case Competition.

Westar’s problem — how does an energy company help drivers transition to an electric vehicle — isn’t as futuristic as some might think.

Car dealerships in the area are expected to offer electric vehicle models within the year, said Hal Jensen, director of SmartStar programs at Westar. And there have been talks about placing a public charging station in the area that could reduce fears among potential electric-car owners that they would run out of power away from home.

Because Lawrence is a hub in Kansas for hybrid vehicles, it’s fair to assume that the community would be a good environment for the adoption of electric vehicles, Segebrecht said.

Westar sees the electric-car market as another way to bolster revenue and electricity as a cheaper alternative to gasoline.

“I think we certainly want to be a facilitator early on in the market to help make a new thing as understandable and convenient as we possibly can,” Jensen said.

So what did the students tell Westar executives?

That the company needs to become an information source where people can go to learn more about the electric car, take a leadership position in using the vehicle and give customers a chance to try them out.

Students also advised the company to partner with dealerships and work with local electricians and the city of Lawrence to establish codes to install home charging stations, Jensen said.

Segebrecht and Rempala’s team could quickly summarize their solution.

“They should be a manager of energy rather than just a provider,” teammate Dan Simmons said.

Winners of the KU competition were a group of international students, Denton Zeeman, of South Africa; Kai Thiele of Germany; Trang Nguyen of Vietnam; and Hatem Shoshaa of Gaza in the Palestinian territory.

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