Building the Ultimate Hybrid and Electric Race Cars

Students compete to design fast, fuel-efficient vehicles

22 August 2014

Twenty-four student teams from around the world gathered from 28 April to 1 May for the eighth annual Formula Hybrid competition, showcasing plug-in hybrid and electric race cars they had engineered and built from the ground up. Judges from Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Toyota, as well as IEEE, were tasked with evaluating and recognizing teams for their innovative designs.

The annual Formula Hybrid competition—which challenges students to build a single seat, open-wheel hybrid or electric race car—took place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS) in Loudon. Part of the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) Collegiate Design Series, the competition is organized by the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. Cash prizes of up to US $2,500 and a number of awards are presented to the winning teams


Before they could compete in the dynamic events, all cars were required to pass rigorous technical inspections to check compliance with design and safety requirements established by the Formula Hybrid rules committee. Students can spend up to two years to design and complete their projects. Many teams built their cars without any prior experience, and some had the added challenge of limited funding. Students demonstrated their creativity in meeting financial challenges by reaching out to companies, including auto manufacturers, to ask for car parts like batteries and electrical components. They held fund-raisers, solicited contributions from alumni, and received university support. Several teams used recycled parts to complete their vehicles.

The team from the University of Vermont received the IEEE Excellence in Electric Vehicle Engineering Award. Its use of sensors throughout the vehicle helped to monitor mission-critical technologies. Photo: Thayer School of Engineering/Dartmouth University


The Design Event is the main portion of the competition. Judges inspect the vehicles and interview students about their engineering choices, including their applications of vehicular technologies. The team from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, incorporated nanomaterial-based suspension components in its hybrid vehicle. This improves the vehicle’s intrinsic reliability, reduces weight, and optimizes acceleration, handling, and endurance. The novel, high-tech integration and the team’s overall attention to race car structure garnered the school the IEEE Engineering the Future Award. The team included electrical, computer, and mechanical engineers, as well as a materials engineer, who came up with the idea of incorporating carbon nanofibers.

“Having a materials engineer gave the university a leg up on the rest of the competitors,” says IEEE Fellow Harold Flescher, an engineering consultant who served as one of the judges and is a national champion driver with the Sports Car Club of America. “To be successful in this competition, collaboration is required of students from a multitude of engineering disciplines.”


Flescher says he was particularly on the lookout for teams that understood the importance of performance trade-offs, such as prioritizing proper handling even if that means making the car heavier or more complex. “These cars have to be designed with the driver in mind,” he says. “Drivers have to trust that the car will respond in a predictable manner to various inputs—such as accelerating, braking, and turning—that will provide proper feedback, especially when going fast.

“Small details can make a big difference. For example, in conventional vehicles, the front wheels independently move slightly to the right or left when the car goes over a bump. At high speeds, however, the wheels must remain pointed or the car will wiggle, creating an unpredictable situation.” Flescher didn’t hesitate to crawl underneath the vehicles to evaluate their construction. “As a judge,” he explains, “I have to look at it and say, ‘Is this a proper race car?’ and ‘Would I like to drive that car myself?’”

IEEE Fellow Bill Tonti, director of IEEE Future Directions, determined the winner of the IEEE Excellence in Electric Vehicle Engineering Award. Smart design choices and attention to detail helped the team from the University of Vermont, in Burlington, take home the best all-electric race car award.

 “I asked every team two questions: How much of a budget did you have, and what did you do with it? Vermont impressed me the most,” he says. “The team had a limited budget and used it well.”

The design feature that particularly impressed Tonti was the use of sensors throughout the vehicle to monitor mission-critical technologies, such as the battery and motor, to assess when maintenance was needed and to diagnose system failures. That feature helped the team to successfully reenergize its car and complete its lap after a malfunction. “The system was able to help the students detect and fix the problem immediately,” Tonti says.


Next it was time for the teams to demonstrate their vehicles on the racetrack. They performed an acceleration run from a standing start through 75 meters, in which many of the teams covered the distance in less than six seconds.

The endurance event, the most grueling, takes place on a hilly, 1-kilometer section of the speedway’s road course. Cars must cover a distance of 44 kilometers as quickly as possible, using only the energy stored onboard. For the hybrids, their electrical storage plus liquid fuel allotment are equal to 35.5 megajoules. That requires an efficient vehicle with an advanced energy management system. A successful team will use every available joule of energy to maximize performance—recouping what it can through regenerative braking—with the goal of running out of energy just after the car crosses the finish line.

Students at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, received the IEEE Engineering the Future Award for best hybrid race car design.  Photo: Douglas Fraser


“Participating in this competition gives students a jump-start to a career,” Tonti says. Automakers attend the competition to recruit students with demonstrated engineering talent. New hires often return to the event as recruiters.

“Automakers are looking for people who already have real experience and are thinking creatively about the next generation of transportation,” Tonti says. “These students are doing stuff we never dreamt of doing at their age.”

After participating in the competition for four consecutive years, an Illinois Institute of Technology student e-mailed the organizers to say: “Thanks to IEEE for being there at the competition every year. The whole thing was really a life-changing experience—well, career-changing at the very least.” The Formula Hybrid alum graduated into a position at Chrysler as a motor control engineer.


Through the efforts of competition organizers, students can connect with automotive professionals for mentorship and networking opportunities while building their cars. Flescher says he would like to get even more IEEE members involved in the event so participants can receive the technical support they need while designing and building their vehicles.

“Having IEEE members help out really makes a difference to these students,” he says. One of the competition’s longest-running sponsors is the IEEE University Partnership Program. However, several IEEE technical societies, as well as the Transportation Electrification Initiative, are doing work in this area and there’s opportunities for their members to get involved, he adds.  

“We would like to see IEEE members visit students at their home institutions three weeks before the competition to conduct an electrical pre-inspection to ensure that they are ready to pass inspection,” says Doug Fraser, director of Formula Hybrid. “This would help make sure that the teams understand the electrical safety regulations and have not overlooked potential hazards in their vehicles.

“Formula Hybrid is more than an exercise in engineering; it involves project management, teamwork, and collaboration across a number of disciplines,” he continues. “These skill sets will enable students to hit the ground running when they enter the workforce. Of course, they can also have a lot of fun in the process.”

To get involved in next year’s competition, send a message to or visit the Formula Hybrid website.

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