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A recent reunion of Western Washington University’s Vehicle Research Institute and some of the cars that students and professors created. (VRI Photo)

We could all be driving electric vehicles or cars that get 100 miles-per-gallon or more if the members of Western Washington University’s Vehicle Research Institute were in charge.

Going all the way back to the 1970s, “we’ve been building efficient cars,” said professor Eric Leonhardt, director of the institute. The students’ first model built in ’72 got 66 mpg, and performance has improved from there. But cheap gas and an entrenched manufacturing system has undermined a widespread shift toward climate-friendly cars and trucks.

Eric Leonhardt, director of the Vehicle Research Institute at WWU.

That hasn’t stopped the students from pursuing fuel efficiency and winning numerous awards over the past few decades. The program, which is based in Bellingham, Wash., north of Seattle, has set records with solar-powered cars. In 2010, a crew led by Leonhardt was the only American university team to reach the finals of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize — a $10 million prize to build a 100-mpg car. The feat is even more impressive when you consider that the students are in the program for only a few years.

“You train them, they get useful and then they graduate,” Leonhardt said.

One of the institute’s current projects is designing an electric utility vehicle for campus employees. The goal is to build a truck that can carry heavy loads of tools, soil, mowers and other supplies with enough power to climb the hills on Western’s rolling campus.

Graduates from the institute have landed jobs at SpaceX, Tesla and cutting-edge startups. Leonhardt, who was himself a student in the program before returning as a professor in 2002, said their challenge now is tackling the new frontier of autonomous vehicles.

“Students are younger and so they see a lot of change,” Leonhardt said, “and they hope to be part of that.”

We caught up with Leonhardt for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

Computer type: PCs

Mobile devices: “Apple — old stuff that I frequently attempt to repair the screen on”

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Besides email, I like tracking my steps and heart rate in Fitbit.”

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “We have a facility with a composites lab, CNC (computer numerical control) machine tools, manual mills and lathes, and an electronics lab. We have the ability to build an entire vehicle including engines and transmissions. We don’t make tires or individual battery cells, but we’ve made everything else — wheels, crankshafts, special fasteners, battery pack, carbon fiber composite chassis and body.”

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “I am happiest when I am working alongside my students building things. Our campus has great exercise instructors so for the past two years or so I have enjoyed working out two to three days a week with friends and colleagues to manage stress.” 

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “We use LinkedIn to reach out to alumni and our advisory board.”

VRI students Alec Wahl and Logan Slack working on a project. (VRI Photo)

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “Only 547 thanks to a filtering algorithm. Otherwise it is closer to 3,000.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “I am scheduled for 12 hours of lectures per week, usually two to three hours of university-related meetings. I try to keep the rest open for working with student teams. Preparing for class also takes me several hours per week.”

How do you run meetings? “Usually I am an advisor for student teams. We try to have students run the meetings. Sometimes I use the method employed by Paul MacCready Jr. (a celebrated American aeronautical engineer) where the students stand around the project and briefly discuss what they have accomplished and what they plan to complete this day or week. Standing helps limit the meetings time and improves active engagement.” 

Everyday work uniform? “I have migrated to blue jeans and a jacket. I have a white lab coat as well for the crazy professor look.”

How do you make time for family? “I started making breakfast and packing lunches for my two boys and wife. I used to work all the time. Kids grow up fast — I almost missed it.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “Fitness classes at WWU. It’s P.E. for adults three days a week. Training with Greater Bellingham Running Club.”

What are you listening to? “Anything my oldest son listens to: Imagine Dragons, James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.”

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “National Geographic. New York Times headlines.”

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ by Mark Manson, ‘Imagine Heaven’ by John Burke, piles of partially read books.”

Night owl or early riser? “Recovering night owl.”

Where do you get your best ideas? “I like to sketch, dream, run. Then talk with friends and colleagues about the ideas.”

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “MacCready set a high bar for innovation. My mentor and Vehicle Research Institute founder Micheal Seal did as well. Recently, I seem to do more paperwork than I remember him doing. Neither of them used email.”

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