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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Joe Thomas talks about The National Center for Automotive Science & Technology at WSU, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, in Ogden.

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.”

Information technology student Ronald Hunt created the Utah Air app and is responsible for most IT functions at NCAST. In less than a month, more than 4,000 people have downloaded the app. Hunt said he would like to see about 20,000 mobile users by next year.

As for his NCAST experience, Hunt said he feels fortunate to be able to work on useful projects that allow him to use his programming skills.

“It’s a good opportunity to learn because you get to work on real-world projects,” he said.

NCAST program coordinator Chris Woodhave, who oversees the OBD Clearinghouse and has helped author some course curriculum, said working at the center has been a “surreal” experience.

“To be told that this is what we want our training manual to be about and then have to start from scratch gathering course material, and to have those books printed out and given to students was great,” Woodhave said.

In addition to the National OBD Clearinghouse, projects currently underway at the center include advanced diagnostic training, as well as OBD training for Vermont and Maryland.

Thomas said automotive manufacturers often contact NCAST when they have issues with vehicle emissions equipment and ask the center to figure out what is causing the problem and come up with "a fix."

“They will give us technical service bulletins indicating a specific problem and tell us how they want us to fix the problem,” he said.

Having the center develop a solution prevents carmakers from issuing large-scale recalls, Woodhave explained.

Moving forward, the center will continue to work on developing controls to improve air quality in Utah and around the nation, Thomas said.

“The projects that we do here are all based on the students stepping up, learning the technologies, and then delivering a product and applying it,” he said.

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