McGill Wins Hybrid Race Car Competition

Highlights from this year’s Formula Hybrid International Competition

8 July 2008

Watch any NASCAR or Formula One race and you’ll see cars emblazoned with the logos of companies like Budweiser, Domino’s Pizza, and Kellogg’s.

The race cars at this year’s Formula Hybrid International Competition, held from 5 to 7 May at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, looked and sounded very different. The promotional logos on vehicles featured images from IEEE, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), electronics manufacturer Omron, and colleges such as Drexel University. And with electric motors alone in gear, the cars made far less noise.

The competition, which is unrelated to NASCAR or Formula One, encourages student teams to build and race high-performance hybrid vehicles. It is organized by the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., and endorsed by IEEE and SAE. The IEEE University Partnership Program (UPP) has supported the competition since its first run in 2006, and this year the UPP contributed US $5000.

This year saw the number of teams jump to 16, compared with the six teams that participated a year ago. No two entries were alike.

“We saw vastly different approaches from each team,” says Douglas A. Frasier, a research engineer at Thayer and director of the Formula Hybrid competition. “There’s a lot of room for innovation in hybrid propulsion systems. The students came up with some very clever solutions.”

“It’s a great cross-disciplinary challenge,” adds Wynne C. Washburn, deputy director of the competition at Thayer. “It brings electrical and mechanical engineers together to work on one project.”

AND THE WINNER IS… McGill University in Montreal took the top prize for the second year in a row. The school’s hybrid was one of only two cars that circled the speedway for the full 22 kilometers required in the competition. This earned the cars top marks for endurance, one of the most important categories in which vehicles were judged. The other team to complete the 22-km track was from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Teams were also scored on factors including car design and acceleration and the students’ presentation skills in describing their cars and design efforts.

McGill’s triumph was due in no small part to its experience building and racing hybrid snowmobiles in other SAE-sponsored competitions, according to graduate student and team leader Simon Ouellette. “Most of the people on our team were also on our electric snowmobile team,” he says. The combined effort keeps them busy most of the year.

“That’s where we get to break stuff and fail,” Ouellette says. “Then we adapt our snowmobile designs to the race car because they’re proven and reliable. A big part of the competition is reliability, and we’re using the components in the winter in much more demanding conditions.”

Although McGill’s vehicle hadn’t changed dramatically from last year’s, the students were surprised by how much better their car performed. “It was fixing all of the little things we didn’t like about last year’s car that added up,” Ouellette says.

Despite their experience, the McGill team still faced a problem that other teams did not: “We didn’t get much time to drive our car before the competition because it’s still too cold in Montreal in March and April,” Ouellette says.

CAUTION FLAG Frasier, who expects the number of competitors to double next year based on the interest that schools have expressed, points to the lessons learned from this year’s competition. One was the need to teach mechanical and electrical engineers to work together.

“Most of these college teams have been racing in Formula SAE for a long time, but the mechanical engineers are only now trying to get EE students involved,” Frasier says. “The meshing of the two groups is where problems are cropping up, but meshing them is a real plus.”

Concentrating on financing is also critical. “Teams from Taiwan and Russia couldn’t get funding this year to ship their cars,” Washburn says. “Shipping vehicles is very expensive, and students need to think about the business aspects of the competition from the very beginning. They must spend time finding sponsors and other sources to help pay for equipment, travel, and other expenses,” she explains.

Students should also think beyond the race itself to the oral presentations they must make about their vehicles, says UPP manager Kristen M. Fitzpatrick, who was the chief judge ranking each team’s presentation. In addition to the official judges, the audiences included representatives from several top automakers.

This was a good opportunity for the students to see how audiences reacted, according to Fitzpatrick. It could provide insight into “what a venture capitalist might be looking for when considering investing in new technology,” she says.

See photos and video from this year’s competition.

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