Green Engineering - Building a Hybrid Race Car

The Alternative Energy Racing Organization project, called Project GreenSpeed, may not have raced competitors during its debut in May, but it has nevertheless been “driven” by students since its start.

Paul Hines, advisor to the AERO team and assistant professor of electrical engineering at UVM, said the ever-growing team of students, united by a passion for collaborative effort and the potential of hybrid design, has taken the lead each step of the way.

“Students were, and continue to be, enormously committed to AERO,” he said.

Their commitment began in November 2006, when a Dartmouth College project that found success in the field of hybrid automotive engineering prompted the students to try their hand at it. After some discussion, students at UVM made the decision to start a similar project of their own.

“Thus Formula Hybrid was born with the goal being to design and compete with a vehicle that complies with traditional Formula [Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc] rules, with the added efficiency of hybrid technology,” said Brian Leach, a junior at UVM and the president of AERO. “We didn’t really know how to do it, or where to start, but we figured it was too exciting of an opportunity to pass up.”

Starting from the ground up, as exciting as it was, the students made a very important discovery –– even with an understanding of how a hybrid vehicle works, putting that into motion is easier said than done.

The AERO team spent the spring struggling to gather and assemble all other parts necessary for the car in time for the upcoming competition.

“There were countless late nights during the fall semester as we pressed hard to finish the design of the vehicle,” Leach said. “However, while the challenges became more pressing, the AERO team was getting more capable of dealing with them. People handling in-kind outsourcing were improving their communication skills and making things happen faster, [and] students that came in at the beginning of the school year without any shop skills were building complex parts and finishing them ahead of time.

“The team really meshed in the end, and that’s what made the entire project so fulfilling for everyone.”

The GreenSpeed car offered a true do-it-yourself opportunity for the students.

“Students do everything from designing the drive train – based on a 50kW motor and a dirt bike gas engine – the frame, the control systems, and the battery system,” said Hines.

The AERO team scrambled to finish their car in time for the Formula Hybrid International Competition held at Darmouth in May.

“Everyone was excited to be showing their vehicles off,” said Leach. “When you spend freakishly long hours in front of a computer or in the shop, it’s very rewarding to put a shine on your car and show it off to other people. I think everyone had a feeling that they had come a long way since they first got involved.”

Unfortunately, the AERO team’s racing expectations went unmet when a computer control center malfunction removed the car from the dynamic competition.

“Watching other cars compete while our car sat in the garage left a sour taste in our mouths, and chips on our shoulders,” said Leach. “We will not be sidelined next year.”

Though the car did not race, Project GreenSpeed did receive several design accolades, including Chrysler’s Best Hybrid System Engineering Award, the Best Hybrid-in-Progress Award, the Dartmouth College Thayer School Dean’s Award for Most Innovative Design. The team also earned second place for overall technical design of the car.

“It was all pretty impressive recognition considering it was the first time our team had built a car,” said Leach.

The innovative design of the GreenSpeed car confirmed the viability of new technologies once labeled as improbable and futuristic, and helped to refocus the AERO team’s efforts on the big picture.

“We are seeking to train a new breed of engineers who explicitly focus on energy efficiency during the design process,” said Hines. “I believe that this will have a significant effect on the next generation of engineering designs no matter where the students end up.”

For Leach, the AERO team is poised to help find new solutions to transportation and energy-related crises facing the world. 

“We are taking the drive to solve the world’s transportation issues, and supercharging it with the passion, competitiveness and innovation that compose racing,” said Leach. “This is pretty widely understood, and most of our peers think what we’re up to is pretty cool.”

The team’s fellow students are not the only members of the community that are interested in their project. AERO receives funding from the university’s Student Government Association, the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, UVM Transportation Center, Vermont Space Grant Consortium, IEEE Green Mountain Section, iTherm Technologies, MicroStrain and Hazelett Strip Casting.

Leach said that last year the team raised $30,000 for the project, but will need to raise the fundraising bar so it can invest in better facilities and transportation for the team and car.

Hines said the team has tossed around possible advancements it may like to pursue in the future.

“There have also been discussions for developing a bio-diesel car or even one that works with hydrogen in some way, though these ideas are a bit further down the road,” Hines said.

The AERO car was a response, at least in part, to the growing push for fuel efficient cars that promote environmental awareness.

“The project embodies a wider approach to design that focuses on lessening the environmental impact of vehicles, while pushing the boundaries of performance and green engineering,” Leach said.

Chris Farmer, a 2007-2008 team member who is a graduate student serving in an advisory capacity, sees the AERO team’s project as in line with current groundbreaking technology.

“This car is an excellent example of how a fuel efficient vehicle can still be fast and fun,” said Farmer. “A big part of the success of this project has been the local and national interest in green engineering projects.  This makes raising money easier and it makes recruiting new members to the team easier.”

Leach hopes to eventually apply what the team has learned to broader fields of study – that is, not solely future Formula Hybrid International Competitions.

“In the long term, I would like to see AERO take on other competitions as well as participate in community transportation research and development,” he said. “If we are successful and wise with our resources, these are all within the realm of possibility.”