A group of University of Victoria students will travel to the other end of the continent later this month to take part in an event that is part auto race, part engineering exhibition, and part job fair.
Dubbed Formula Hybrid, the competition runs from April 30 to May 3 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, NH, a small community in the southern part of the New England state.
Formula Hybrid, founded in 2006, challenges students to design and construct a racing vehicles that uses a hybrid drive train.
On the surface, the term appears to be a contradiction. On one hand, it evokes images of high-powered Formula One racing cars with daring drivers behind the wheel. Hybrid, meanwhile, suggests Ed Begley Jr., the mild-manner Hollywood actor known for serious, somber causes.
But the parallels between the pinnacle of global automotive racing — sorry, NASCAR fans — and Formula Hybrid are not necessarily far-fetched. Both involve team work and involve sophisticated machinery.
The competition itself consists of static and dynamic events.
Static events see students explain their vehicles to a jury of experts, who assess both the students’ engineering as well as project management skills. Dynamic events, meanwhile, see vehicles undergo testing in three categories: acceleration, handling, and endurance. Insiders describe this category as the most challenging, because vehicles must complete 44 one-kilometre-long laps on Loudon’s oval track that includes two climbs per lap totaling more than seventy-two feet, with teams scoring points under a formula rewards both speed and distance travelled.
“It’s not about how fast you are going,” said Robert Kuhr, support coordinator for UVic’s Formula Hybrid Team. “It’s about how far you are going without damaging the car.”
In general, the team completing the most laps in the shortest time using a fixed amount of energy will earn the maximum points available for the endurance event.
All vehicles begin with fully charged accumulators. Hybrids then receive an additional allocation of liquid fuel to ensure that all vehicles start with the same amount of energy. Electric-only vehicles must complete the endurance competition with the energy contained in their accumulators.
Racing, in the traditional sense, does not take place. Vehicles can pass each other, but only in designated sections under the supervision of track officials. Everybody wants to drive, but it is not a question of who is the best driver, said Kuhr. Rather, it is a question of who is most knowledgable about the power train and the control system, he said.
UVic first started competing in 2015, but without a vehicle, finishing third. The experience, however, proved to be valuable, as the next year’s team won the overall hybrid category. “It was a gifted team,” said Kuhr. “It absolutely was.” In fact, members of that team have gone to work for Tesla and General Motors.
2017 proved to be a different story, as an inexperienced team took their vehicle to New Hampshire without the benefit of full testing. 2018 has also proven itself to be challenging, as the team will travel to the competition without a vehicle as several bugs remain unresolved.
While disappointing on the surface, Kuhr said he believes the experience will nonetheless be extremely valuable. “They will get to practice their presentations, have the opportunity to interview with major automotive manufacturers, be able to network with other teams, and be better able to prioritize their efforts for next years, after having participated in the competition first hand,” he said.
Over the years, teams have varied in size. Ten individuals make up the core team, with another 10 to 20 individuals supporting the main group.
The competition emphasizes originality. While the current vehicle contains about 60 per cent of UVic’s inaugural vehicle, teams cannot simply refine previous incarnations of it. Under the rules of the competition, they must demonstrate that they have made significant changes to the drive train, said Kuhr. This year’s vehicle, for example, includes a new electrical motor and software code, as students themselves want to try and test new things.
Start up costs for the team hovered between $20,000 and $30,000, with annual costs running up to $15,000. Components that break are not only expensive to replace in many cases, but also often ship from great distances. Sometimes, the team has to build parts in-house.
All these elements though are part and parcel of the team’s larger pedagogical mission to create superior engineers.