Engineering Students Design and Build Their First Electric Car
Creating energy-efficient vehicles
engineers like to build things, but tackling big, labor-intensive, real-world
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
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.
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.
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
“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.”