Engineering Students Design and Build Their First Electric Car

Creating energy-efficient vehicles

Road Axe 470
Road Axe on the track at the 2012 Eco-Marathon.

Aspiring engineers like to build things, but tackling big, labor-intensive, real-world projects is seldom part of an educational curriculum. At Northern Arizona University (NAU), however, undergraduate students who are members of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) get a chance to apply engineering principles: They design and build transportation systems—from off-road vehicles and cars to airplanes. This valuable experience often leads to job offers when they graduate.

Creating energy-efficient vehicles

At the beginning of each academic year students decide what they want to build.  “It’s a student-driven interest,” said John Tester, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and SAE advisor for nearly 10 years. In 2007, SAE members became interested in renewable energy; and since then, dozens of NAU engineering students have tested their mettle and knowhow by designing, fabricating, and testing automobiles to compete in the Shell Eco-Marathon. This annual event challenges high school and college student teams from around the world to develop energy-efficient vehicles. 

In the 2011-2012 academic year, SAE members achieved a new milestone—they built their first electric car. The car was designed during the fall semester, and construction and testing took place in the spring. Nearly 30 students invested a total of 3,000 hours to construct the car; for some it was their senior capstone project, which gave them the opportunity to discuss their work.

Students organized themselves into five sub-teams so they could concentrate on one aspect of auto construction—electrical engineering, drive train, brake/steering, frame/suspension, and faring and ergonomics.  “We break it up so no one is overwhelmed,” explained Seth Green, an engineering and physics major and the drive team leader.  Still, what one subgroup does affects the overall performance of the car so the subgroups must work together. A team manager helps facilitate communication, organization, and task completion. 

“Every piece of material, every piece of electrical circuitry, every machine part, and every welded part was done exclusively by students.”

Doing it on their own

The electric car was one of two vehicles NAU entered in the urban-concept-vehicle category at Shell Eco-Marathon Americas 2012 in Houston, Texas. (The other was a gas-powered car rebuilt from the previous year.)  In addition to being energy-efficient, urban-concept vehicles must meet the road-worthiness criteria of a passenger vehicle, such as having doors, lights, a brake pedal, seat belts, and other features. Both cars passed the technical inspection on the first try in Houston—a significant accomplishment for an entirely student-run project.  

“Every piece of material, every piece of electrical circuitry, every machine part, and every welded part was done exclusively by students,” Tester said. “No faculty member built anything, including me. They were on their own.”  For additional suggestions, students reached out to experts in the community, many of whom provided advice, product discounts, and monetary and in-kind donations. The value of contributions came to approximately $20,000. 

Taking the Experience with Them

For many project participants, building a car from scratch was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.  But building a vehicle also develops valuable skills. “It’s a good learning experience,” said Tanya Gallagher, a member of the first NAU Eco-marathon team and a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “You get an idea in your head. You start to make it, and you find you can’t make it that way.  So you start over. Then you put together the car, and it doesn’t work the way you thought, or you forgot one part.  One year the gas pedal was bent after the first run; there had been no analysis to see how strong the lever was. … [When you build a car,] you get a picture of everything that needs to be incorporated into a design.  You can’t learn that any other way.”

Not surprisingly, this type of practical learning leads to real-world opportunities. After graduating from NAU, SAE members have gone on to work for companies such as Caterpillar, Boeing, Raytheon, Orbital, NASA, and custom-car developers.   2012 Team Manager Lauren Green, an engineering and mathematics major, has been hired by W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., a company that manufactures advanced technology products such as Gore-Tex fabrics.  “I enjoy working with people, and Gore is a group-oriented company,” she said. “Learning how to communicate was the number one lesson I took away from the SAE experience.  If you can’t communicate, you’re no use to a company.”