Start Your Hybrid Engines
Thayer School drives a new competition.
By Randy Stebbins ’01
Photographs by Douglas Fraser
Pull over conventional racecars. Thayer School is driving hybrid technology to the fast lane by holding the nation’s first collegiate Formula Hybrid competition.
The May 4 event at the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon is so revolutionary that only Thayer School and McGill University have hybrids ready for racing. So Thayer School devised a way around that roadblock: this year’s race will be a demonstration. Teams from schools around the country will participate in a Formula Hybrid conference at Thayer School May 3 and enter the race next year.
The Formula Hybrid competition and conference are the brainchild of Thayer School research engineer Douglas Fraser, faculty advisor to Dartmouth Formula Racing (DFR) since 1995 and to the two-year-old Hybrid arm of it. Formula Hybrid has already won endorsement from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), which oversees conventional Formula racing, and from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Both organizations have signed on as Formula Hybrid sponsors to support this year’s efforts and build momentum for next year’s events.
“Formula Hybrid builds on the Formula SAE program and takes it to the next level,” says Fraser. “It adds a layer of complexity and provides an additional technical challenge to student teams.”
Formula Hybrid challenges undergraduate and graduate college and university students to design, build, and race an open-wheel, single-seat car. Each racecar must conform to a formula that emphasizes drive-train innovation, fuel efficiency, and high performance.
At the inaugural Formula Hybrid conference, race team advisors will determine the racecar formula and the rules of future competitions. They will define what qualifies as a hybrid, work out testing methods, assess safety issues, and thrash out details of hybrid design.
The aim of the Formula Hybrid program, says Fraser, is to spur student creativity in high-power electronics, regenerative electric/hydraulic braking systems, and other areas of engineering useful not just on the track but on the real-life road. “We hope to be turning out engineers who will design new hybrids,” he says.
Hybrid automotive technology replaces a conventional drive train with a smaller, more efficient gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor. The system cuts fuel consumption, saving money and resources. But in a nation used to muscle cars, hybrids are often seen as anemic weaklings.
Thayer students want to give hybrids a shot in the arm.
“Hybrids are associated with low performance as well as a box-like image,” says Dana Haffner ’06, Th’06, a member of the Hybrid mechanical team. “We hope to challenge this stereotype by creating a hybrid race car that could potentially be capable of outperforming its gasoline counterparts. Americans like powerful cars, and this is often a more important factor in buying a car than gas mileage and environmental concerns. With our car and new competition we hope to contribute toward bridging the gap between performance and fuel efficiency.”
The team’s recently appointed captain, Sally Smith ’05, Th’06, ’07, sees the Formula Hybrid program as a vehicle for working toward sustainability. “Racecars aren’t a sustainable technology in themselves, but the things we are optimizing are the same things that are sustainable,” she says, ticking off the team’s goals: reducing fuel consumption, boosting electricity generation and transfer, and delivering power to the car’s drive wheels in the most efficient way possible.
Many of the engineering challenges facing students in the hybrid competition are similar to those of the current Formula SAE program. Students must design robust mechanical systems for suspension, steering, and braking; create innovative chassis and body designs; improve ergonomics; develop race strategy and management; plan for computerized systems control and data acquisition; modify the intake, exhaust, and ignition systems of internal combustion engines; manage fuel consumption; and learn how to oversee a large project, all the while keeping an eye on the economics of automobile engineering, manufacturing, and marketing.
Thayer’s Hybrid team is hard at work on hybrid racecar-specific challenges. Whereas commercial hybrids use heavy nickel-hydride batteries, Thayer’s hybrid lightens the load by using an array of 106 soda-can-sized ultra-capacitors. The team must also design and make a DC-to-DC converter — no mean feat — to boost the voltage coming out of the hybrid’s generators. Commercial automakers have solved that power problem but hold their methods close. With no off-the-shelf solutions to turn to, Thayer students have to come up with one on their own.
“The hybrid is more open-ended, in the sense that we get to choose all the major components and how they work together,” says Hybrid electrical team member Arne Kepp Th’06. “We have to find our own way, which I think is exciting.”
Road to the Future
Although the first hybrid auto was designed in 1905, the American auto industry has been slow-moving in its approach to hybrids. Japanese automakers, however, weren’t asleep at the wheel. Toyota introduced the hugely successful Prius in 2000. Since then hybrid cars have moved steadily onto American roads, with more than 200,000 hybrids of various makes sold in the United States in 2005. Federal tax breaks for hybrids take effect this year. Twenty states already offer incentives for hybrid car buyers, ranging from free rides in the carpool lane for solo drivers to tax credits and emissions-tax exemptions. Some cities offer free parking and other perks to hybrid owners, and a number of corporations are giving employees some financial incentives to help buy hybrids.
While Japan has beaten Detroit thus far on the hybrid road, Fraser, who drives a Prius, hopes Formula Hybrid ideas will benefit American carmakers. “We’re doing our part to help them,” he says.
Just as hybrids and conventional cars are likely to co-exist in the commercial world for the foreseeable future, Thayer and other engineering schools around the nation have no plans to abandon the Formula SAE program. “We expect that one path of entry to the Formula Hybrid competition will be for teams to construct a vehicle, develop the chassis and related systems in the Formula SAE program, and then replace the internal combustion engine with a hybrid drive train the following year for the Formula Hybrid competition,” says Fraser.
Fraser expects the new Formula Hybrid team to be as successful in competition as DFR teams have been in Formula SAE contests. Thayer students have been competitive even against many of “the big schools with a whole department devoted to auto engineering,” he says.
Other engineering schools, large and small, are revving up to participate in Thayer’s Formula Hybrid program. In the hybrid race, Thayer is setting the pace.
— Randy Stebbins is a freelance writer based in Lyme, N.H.
For more photos, visit our Dartmouth Formula Racing collection on Flickr.