Student Competition: Formula Hybrid Speeds Ahead
By Calvin Krishen Th’07
Photographs by Yong Su
Anticipation ran high at Thayer School’s third annual Formula Hybrid International Competition, held May 4–6 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Could two-time champion McGill pull off a three-peat? Could previous underdogs Dartmouth and Embry Riddle catch up? Would Formula SAE World Champion Texas A&M have the electrical engineering smarts to build a solid first-year hybrid car? Could California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo (CalPoly SLO), known to make super-light cars in Formula SAE, leverage that advantage with their hybrid? With 30 student teams competing — twice as many as last year, including teams from Canada, India, Russia, and Taiwan — anything could happen.
The competition began with tech inspections — to ensure that cars were safe to drive — and design and marketing presentations. Judges, including professional engineers from GM, Toyota, A123 Battery, and other companies interested in promoting green engineering, rated the cars side-by-side and tested each team on the execution of design details.
Cars hit the track on a rain-drenched day two. First up: the acceleration event, a 75-meter straight-line sprint, with cars running in two power modes: gas-electric and electric-only. Speeding to first place in both categories, Colorado State posted this year’s fastest time of 5.011 seconds (missing the 4.994-second record set by Dartmouth last year by just 17/1000ths of a second). This year Dartmouth placed fourth in gas-electric and second in the electric-only. Texas A&M took second and third, respectively.
Next up: autocross, a one-lap sprint around a twisty course, with each driver allowed two attempts to set the fastest time. Despite a wet track, Texas A&M set a lightning pace, with laps 23 seconds faster than any other car. Dartmouth had expected to excel in autocross, but a heartbreaking spin-out knocked them out of the running.
Day three — also rain-soaked — began with the results announcement of the design finals. Texas A&M edged out Dartmouth for first place. Colorado State placed third.
The endurance event — 30 minutes of continuous hard driving at a car’s limit — was the last chance for any team to overtake Texas A&M. Thirteen cars were ready for the event. The run order was determined by finish order from the autocross: Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Drexel, and Embry Riddle were first in line.
Dartmouth was scheduled to start seventh, but a generator failure diverted the team into a race against time. With three hours remaining, 15 students scrambled to tear down the car, rebuild the damaged generator, and put everything back together. As team after team raced the track, Dartmouth closed in on having a functional car. Then heartbreak again: the endurance course shut down 35 minutes early because too few cars were eligible to make the run. Dartmouth never got the chance to race.
Texas A&M, Colorado State, and Drexel topped the endurance event for gas-electric hybrids. CalPoly SLO, Tufts, UC San Diego, and Alabama headed a pack of electric-only vehicles.
The top winners overall: Texas A&M for gas-electric hybrids and Cal Poly SLO for electric-only cars. Colorado State placed second, Drexel third. McGill, which dominated the previous two years, came in fourth. Dartmouth finished seventh, despite having to forego the endurance event.
What contributed to the success of the Texas A&M and Cal Poly SLO cars? Low weight and careful examination of the rules. The Texas hybrid carried a trim 528 pounds due to the rules allowing minimal electrical energy storage and a generous fuel allotment. The car carried enough energy to complete the electric-only acceleration run and was primarily powered by its 250cc combustion engine. Cal Poly’s all-electric car was a mere 420 pounds. “Cal Poly SLO took a ruthless approach to reducing weight,” says chassis design judge Andrew Burston of Flux Dynamics. The team used superlight scooter wheels and compact battery packs.
Meanwhile, Brigham Young University came up with a whole new approach. Instead of converting mechanical energy to electrical energy like a traditional hybrid, BYU designed a system to store mechanical energy in the form of compressed hydraulic fluid. Displayed this year as an exhibition car, the vehicle may prove to be a game-changer for the competition and the evolution of hybrids.
And inspiring creative thinking is the whole point of Formula Hybrid. “We’re seeing even wilder applications of technology. No one knows the answer yet,” says Burston. “Some people are playing the game and trying to win. And some people are just trying wild and crazy engineering ideas that might work and might not. Nobody knows. And that’s what makes it fascinating.”comments powered by Disqus