Meet Chevrolet’s Tessa Baughman, one of a new generation of female engineers helping to revolutionize diesel-Powered vehicles
By Clay Nichols
The days of stereotyping diesel as all smoke, noise and manliness are numbered, if the latest “power plants”—like the one under the hood of the 2014 Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel—are any indication. Likewise for the engineers who are creating this latest generation of diesel engines.
You won’t find a pocket protector anywhere in the vicinity of Chevrolet’s Tessa Baughman, Performance Engineer for Energy and Powertrain Integration. She’s one of a new generation of female engineers contributing to the ongoing revolution in diesel-powered vehicles. We recently spoke with her to get some insights into this revolution and one of its most celebrated accomplishments: the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, the first clean diesel car from a domestic automaker. (Clean diesels generate at least 90% less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) when compared to previous generation diesels.)
Your job—optimizing the fuel economy of the Cruze—has led you to some real-world experiments, including recent ones where you tried to see how many miles you could go on a single tank of diesel. Can you tell us about that trip?
I’m originally from Arkansas, which is a 16-hour drive from Detroit—about 900 miles. So I asked my boss if I could take a Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel to visit my family. As an experiment, I wanted to try to get the best fuel economy* I could and see how far it could go on a tank.
Being a fuel-economy engineer, I knew the maximum speed I could go and still get about 900 miles: 65 mph.The speed limit was 70. So I drove five below the speed limit, which was very difficult for me because I’m more of a sporty driver.
Also, with the Cruze Eco and the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, there’s an Eco index display you can access on the dashboard Driver Information Center that shows you how your pedal input relates to fuel economy. So when we weren’t cruising down the road—when we were accelerating in the small towns—we’d use that.
Anyway, we made it. It was something that I did on my own, but, hey, I’m an engineer. I want to see what I can do. But without any special effort, an average driver can go up to 717 highway miles on one tank of gas.**
What is it about the technology that makes it possible for a car to go so far on a single tank of fuel?
Well, with the current vehicle, we made quite a few aerodynamic improvements—the aerodynamics help you the most on the highway. It has under-body panels, a fuel tank aeroblade, tire deflectors, a lower air dam compared to the base non-Eco model. Then we also used the same tires that are available on the Eco model.
As an engineer, you’re part of a team. Have you guys had a “home run” moment as a team?
When we got the fuel-economy numbers from the EPA, it took everything I had not to run up and down the hallways of the office building telling everybody. That was a huge home run. We received a 46 miles-per-gallon highway label, which is 4 miles-per-gallon better than the Jetta TDI with automatic transmission. The Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel has the highest fuel economy of any non-conventional-engine vehicle in the United States.***
Did you have an individual moment that you’re particularly proud of?
We actually took the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel into the wind tunnel to try to figure out if there was anything else we could do to improve the aerodynamics. I noticed that the rear tire deflectors were shorter than the front tire deflectors. I thought that if we lengthened them to the same size as the front ones, it might help. It’s just little things like that—they all added up to make the perfect storm for this vehicle to get the fuel economy that it does.
Often when we think about diesel, a lot of the stereotypes come up: It’s something that belongs on a big rig—black smoke, noisy. Obviously, diesel technology has changed. How does the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel embody that?
I definitely think there’s a mental shift that needs to occur. Getting into a Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel…sure, it sounds like a diesel when you start it up. But as soon as you get on the road, you can’t tell that it’s a diesel. It’s so quiet, and giving you the performance and the fuel economy that I think any person who likes to have a little bit of fun in their car would definitely enjoy. Half the people get into the vehicle and they’re like, “Oh, wait. Is this a diesel? I didn’t even know.”
It’s just so much fun to drive. And whenever you want that extra torque, it’s there for you. The vehicle dynamics were also worked on quite a bit, and you feel it as you’re going through those little switchback hills.
We reduced the knocks and the particulate matter, too. We’ve come quite a long way with the emissions technology.
Diesel in general around the world, outside the United States, is highly accepted. It’s just the U.S. where we’re trying to come back into the market. Because of the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, I believe that diesels will become more popular here. Once we get over that stereotype and just give diesel a chance, I think a lot of people will change their minds. Because I honestly believe that once you get into this vehicle and drive it, you’re going to want to drive it off the lot.
Thanks to passionate engineers like Tessa Baughman, Chevrolet is taking a lead in developing new diesel technology that all of us—men, women and families alike—can appreciate and enjoy.
Clay Nichols is co-founder and editor of DadLabs.com.
*EPA-estimated MPG 27 city/46 highway/33 combined.
**Based on EPA highway estimate 46 MPG and fuel tank capacity. Your range may be less.
***Visit fueleconomy.gov for details.