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Road Axe
Road Axe on the track during the Eco Marathon

Northern Arizona University’s student Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) members don’t just read about engineering—they apply engineering principles to 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 adviser for nearly 10 years.

In 2007, SAE members became interested in renewable energy; since then, dozens of Northern Arizona University engineering students have tested their mettle and knowledge 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, and some even got course credit for it.

Doing it on their own

The electric car was one of two vehicles the university 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.”

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,” she said. “Then you put together the car, and it doesn’t work the way you thought, or you forgot one part.”

This trial-and-error experience provides an irreplaceable opportunity to observe many aspects of a car’s creation. “[When you build a car,] you get a picture of everything that needs to be incorporated into a design,” Gallagher continues. “You can’t learn that any other way.”