Weber State center helping to improve auto technology

Published: Saturday, Dec. 7 2013 6:22 p.m. MST

Joe Thomas, with Weber State graduate Chris Woodhave, talks about The National Center for Automotive Science & Technology at WSU, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, in Ogden.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

OGDEN — Utah has long been a place where advances in technology have led to progress in numerous industries, including the automotive sector. Now, a student-run program at Weber State University is helping make vehicle air cleaner nationwide.

Established in the late 1990s under then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, the National Center for Automotive Science & Technology is an education, industry and government partnership created to develop a better understanding of vehicle emissions, advanced emission control technology, fuels and transportation issues. The information gathered is disseminated among academic institutions, regulatory agencies and the private sector.

The goal is to increase public awareness and involvement through applied research, science and education so action can be taken to create and maintain a better way of life, said Joe Thomas, director of the center at WSU.

“What makes us different is that students do all the work,” Thomas said.

The center is part of Weber State's College of Applied Science and Technology. NCAST students work on projects related to air quality issues.

One of the recent innovations created at the center was a mobile app called Utah Air that delivers real-time air quality information to users, giving people along the Wasatch Front and elsewhere help in navigating their days, including whether to go outside at all.

The app was developed by NCAST students who said they hope it will allow area residents to make informed decisions about driving, among other things, and reduce the number of bad air days in Utah.

The school also houses technician training facilities of several vehicle manufacturers, including General Motors, Toyota and Chrysler.

“The reason we chose Weber State University is because of the associations they have,” Thomas explained. “We can use the greatest, latest technologies for the students to put their hands on and learn.”

The center aids automakers in developing cleaner running vehicles and government agencies in establishing better clean air protocols. Today, those goals are accomplished through the National On-Board Diagnostics Clearinghouse operated by NCAST.

Established through a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant, the National On-Board Diagnostics Clearinghouse was created to facilitate communication, resolve technical issues and convey accurate and timely on-board diagnostics, or OBD, information between general public, government officials and the automotive industry. All vehicles produced after 1996 are required to have OBD technology installed as standard equipment, Thomas said.

“(In the '90s), people used to put a probe in the tailpipe to test the car,” he explained. “Now, the (emissions) test is totally different. … You plug into your on-board computer to extract information. The car actually tells you how it’s doing.”

With an annual budget of about $250,000, the center is funded in part by a five-year, $500,000 grant from the EPA, as well as other industry sources. Thomas said that funding has allowed the center to offer unique opportunities to many students over the years, working on problems that affect drivers across the country.

“We’re empowering our students to make some really critical decisions on the success of our center,” he said. “In traditional academia, it’s the faculty that is doing much of the thought processing, with students doing some of the legwork and faculty presenting the research. My approach is that each student has a project that they are responsible for.”

Thomas said he considers the center a “small, private company that is providing a public service.”

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