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Engineering contest at the Speedway shows that hybrid racecars are twice as complicated

May 16, 2016   |   by David Brooks   |   Concord Monitor

DFR at Formula Hybrid
Suzanne Royce (center) performs a mechanical tech inspection on the Dartmouth racecar during the annual Formula Hybrid competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Electric cars may be the future of transportation, but when you’re training engineers, they have a drawback compared with gasoline-electric hybrids: they’re kind of boring.

“Electric motors are great, but they’re really pretty simple. These aren’t,” said Douglas Fraser, director of the annual Formula Hybrid racecar competition at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as the four-day event wound up late last week.

“Are you going to run in series? Parallel? How are they paralleled? Are you using chains? A jackshaft? Decisions about clutches, wheel motors – there’s an amazing assortment of stuff,” said Fraser, a senior research engineer at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, which created the Formula Hybrid contest in 2006. “No two cars are even remotely similar.”

You don’t have to tell the home team that it’s complicated. The car from the Thayer School never made it onto the track for the final endurance test after problems forced the team to face the engineering nightmare of a complete teardown and rebuild under extreme time pressure.

“We ditched the design, ditched the motor, rewired everything. . . . I made the decision at about 9am today,” said Margaux LeBlanc of Kennebunk, Maine, a fifth-year student at Thayer getting a second engineering degree, as she watched Dartmouth team members work on the car about 2pm, an hour before the track closed. “It’s amazing what you can do when you work really hard.”

The problem, she explained, was controllers. Two Arduinos, the open-source microprocessors beloved by budget-strapped builders, had for some reason stopped communicating with other components, interfering with the complex dance between gasoline- and electric-powered systems that make hybrid vehicles so interesting. LeBlanc then launched into a torrent of technical detail that was cut short when she had to leap into the race car and steer as a half-dozen students pushed it up a hill to be judged. (They got their electrical certification, but not the mechanical.)

Formula Hybrid was created in 2006 as a spinoff of the 35-year-old Formula SAE competition, which was created by the Society of Automotive Engineers (hence SAE) to give engineering undergraduates some hands-on experience of creating a working racecar – roughly half the size of a real Formula-style car – and putting it through a variety of paces.

Formula Hybrid is the same idea, except the cars are supposed to use a mix of gasoline- and electric-powered engines. Electric-only vehicles are allowed if necessary, although they’re known as “hybrid in progress,” as if they were the larval stage of the real creation.

This year’s event ran from May 2 to 5, occupying most of the interior of the speedway for the week.

Hybrid cars were still relatively novel in 2006, which is part of the reason why the event was started. And while hybrids have become a routine part of life – this reporter’s hybrid recently passed the 210,000-mile mark – actually building them remains far from routine.

“It’s the most challenging of the formula designs. Getting the two systems integrated – that’s hard,” said Zach Ketner, a senior at Lawrence Technical University, near Detroit. (As you might suspect, Michigan schools are very interested in Formula Hybrid, and Ketner said he chose to attend Lawrence after learning that it participated in Formula Hybrid. Ford, GM and Chrysler all had displays at the event to help them recruit participants. )

“There’s a challenging set of rules,” said Ketner. “Most of them are designed for safety – when things shut off, you have to make sure they shut off in a certain order and over a certain time period. (There are) decisions about whether you do things through software or hardware, there are the high-voltage and low-voltage systems. . . . There’s a lot.”

Formula Hybrid’s appeal can be seen in its international appeal. Two colleges from Canada participated, as did four colleges from India (whose students looked slightly shocked by the weather during what Fraser said was the coldest and wettest of the 10 Formula Hybrid contests), as well as one from Turkey.

That team, from Atilim University in the capital city of Ankara, made the last endurance run of the contest, cheering frantically from behind the concrete safety barriers as their car zipped under the checkered flag after multiple trips around the one-mile oval. Yet, it almost didn’t happen.

“We had it ready in Ankara, but here the inspector told us the wiring was not good,” said Ayca Gocmen Glingor, a graduate student in automotive engineering who accompanied the undergraduate team. “We had to change it, then they said it was (allowed) and then we went back to our original.”

All’s well that end’s well, however, particularly because some last-minute running around meant that a vital piece of equipment was included on the car.

“Go-Pro! Go-Pro!” shouted one team member, using the name for the ubiquitous sports camera. These days, if your accomplishment isn’t filmed, it hardly exists.

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