College teams compete in hybrid challenge

Deep in the bowels of a Tufts University engineering building, a gas engine, electric motor, and hundreds of yards of wiring are fitted into an aluminum space frame. Christopher Jackson and his fellow Tufts students are preparing a hybrid racecar.

That may sound like an oxymoron, but almost 40 other college teams were going through the same rigors. They were all preparing for the 2012 edition of Formula Hybrid, a competition among college and university engineering programs, and Jackson’s Tufts team is hurriedly assembling their car F1 with pit crew precision.

The weeks leading into the competition, which ran from April 30 to May 3, entailed final assembly and shakedown testing. “There are oneand- a-half thousand parts on the car and 100 pages of rules,” points out Jackson. “Anything can happen.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The competition is the brainchild of research engineer and racing enthusiast Doug Fraser, who has taught at Dartmouth College for three decades. Like so many great innovations in motorsport, the idea started as an end-around of the rulebook. In 2005, Fraser was the team advisor for Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering Formula SAE team. Formula SAE is a collegiate engineering competition that involves building a formula-style race car.

“We came up with a scheme to use hybrid technology to get around the restrictor rules, but when race organizers got wind of this and outlawed hybrids from the competition.” Fraser recalls.

Undeterred, Fraser and his Dartmouth team hosted a conference the following year to devise a set of rules for a true hybrid competition. In 2006, teams from Dartmouth and McGill University in Quebec met at New Hampshire International Speedway (NHIS) in Loudon for a demonstration.

“The first year was not a formal competition,” emphasizes Fraser. “In 2007, that was the first one.”

In subsequent years, the competition has grown, with 39 teams competing in 2012, featuring entrants from around the country and the world.

“This year we have seven Canadian teams,” notes Fraser, “we also have a Spanish team, an Italian team, and last year, a Russian team.”

During four days of competition, teams must get through a technical inspection, make a business presentation to representatives from the manufacturers, and finally, race. All phases of the competition present unique challenges, but for engineering students, the business presentation is the tough part. Pitching the economic viability of your car to a room full of carmakers is likely not something taught in a technical classroom.

The presence of auto reps speaks to the significance of the innovations being made by these college students. The manufacturers covet the access to these bright students and are willing to pay top dollar for it.

“The driving force of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) sponsorship is recruiting” future employees, notes Fraser. “Any OEM can attend and hand out a business card, but platinum-level sponsors can recruit as blatantly as they want.”

To that end, General Motors rents out conference space at NHIS, fully prepared to make hires based on what they witness at the competition. Chrysler, Ford, and Toyota are also major sponsors, all looking for the next class of automotive engineers.

The main event, of course, is when the car gets on the track. “Wednesday consists of the autocross course and acceleration,” explains Christopher Jackson. “You have to make a 75 meter run in under 10 seconds.” Thursday, the final day, features the endurance event. “It’s a 33 kilometer event,” he says. “You are given 19.5 megajoules of energy, and the goal is to cross the finish line with no energy left.”

Unfortunately, Jackson and his team hit a series of snags just before the competition.

“We had a tough time with the electronics,” says Jackson after the event. “The car was not ready in time for the tech inspection, and if you don’t pass tech, you don’t race.”

The event was not a complete loss for the Tufts Hybrid Racing team, as lessons learned from this year’s attempt have better prepared them for 2013. “The whole team here is really hungry to get the car going for next year,” Jackson emphasizes. “We have to modify it and we want to add elements like data collection.”

Like several members of his team, Jackson starts his senior year in the fall, and with one of the lightest cars in the field, the Tufts Hybrid Racing team has good odds for a successful 2013 campaign. The advances made by his Tufts team, as well as the whole field of racers, mean future innovation in the automotive world. Their designs may someday make their way into the next generation of hybrid street cars.