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Hybrid racer event gets NH college engineers to pull together

Union Leader Correspondent

May 01. 2013 10:10PM
Dartmouth College student Chris Bilger of Los Altos, Calif., prepares for an acceleration run behind the wheel of her college's team car during the Formula Hybrid Competition at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

LOUDON -- A group of Dartmouth electrical and mechanical engineering students are learning how to speak each other's language this week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The team designed and built the college's automobile entry in the seventh-annual Formula Hybrid Competition.

Their task was to create a car for the 20-college competition that will compete in time trials - no small task considering only nine of the 20 colleges registered were able to complete their vehicles this year.

But the actual goal of the competition is for students to get real-world experience managing an engineering project, which can be difficult when mechanical and electrical - and even a few chenical - engineers have different ideas of how to to accomplish the same task.

"It's no secret that sometimes mechanical engineers and electrical engineers don't seem to be able to talk to each other. An electrical engineer will want to do something electrically, and a mechanical engineer will want to do it mechanically," said Douglas A. Fraser of Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering and the competition's director.

"This competition teaches them to be bilingual and work with each other," he said.

Indeed, the competition, which has been operating at sites around the country since the 1970s by SAE International of Warrendale, Pa., and its competitors are sponsored by automobile manufacturers like Ford and Toyota. Automakers' hiring representatives attend the competitions, and successful team members are often hired out of college based on their performance in the hybrid contest, said SAE's Steven Daum.

"These cars are extremely complex, and the students are extremely bright people who haven't had any project experience. Some of the colleges that register and don't make it have problems with the management and teamwork aspects, and that's why they aren't here," Daum said.

"That's why the car makers are here to find the successful students," he said.

Although there is a time-trial race involved, winning the race in the four-day event is not the ultimate goal.

Dartmouth has never won the overall competition, said Katheryn Lapierre, but the college usually places well in various competitions, such as presentation, design and performance tests.

Teams are required to build hybrid cars that use gas and electricity, or they can build all-electric cars. "Building a hybrid or electric car at this level is extremely difficult," Daum said.

Dartmouth's team decided to build an electric-powered car, an 832-pound, 83-horsepower car designed to go a maximum of 60 mph using a "sexy forklift motor," said mechanical engineering student Darren Reis.

When Dartmouth electrical engineering student Callen Votzke joined the team, he redesigned the car's electric panel, which had originally been designed by the mechanical engineers.

"There was a lot to learn. We got together eight months ago, and we didn't really know anything about how to do this," said Reis, one of the team's two captains.

"It's been a lot more than engineering. I'd never done leadership before except in Boy Scouts, and it's a lot different leading a bunch of engineers around compared with Boy Scouts."

Reis said he had not planned to work for a automaker before the project.

"If you had asked me eight months ago, I wouldn't have thought of it, but now, yeah, I think I might look into it," he said.

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