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Efficient Vehicle Team Members Go the Distance Through Problem-Solving

Friday, May 01, 2015
Efficient Vehicle Team prepares for a test run.

Engineering Applied: Rose-Hulman's Efficient Vehicle Team provides an opportunity for students to apply classroom knowledge, gain competitive edge with employers.

Three Rose-Hulman students who participated in an efficient vehicle competition have learned that you don't necessarily have to win a race to come out ahead in the long run. Patrick Atkinson, Jacob Rigelman, and Daniel Wang have been deconstructing their experience and adding to their own body of knowledge. As members of Rose-Hulman's Efficient Vehicles (RHEV) team, they had competed in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas in Detroit April 10-12.

Each year, Shell Eco-marathon events challenge students in the U.S. and around the world to design and build ultra-efficient vehicles. Winning teams are those that go a prescribed distance using the least amount of energy. In their second season competing in the ethanol category, RHEV's vehicle averaged 650 miles per gallon.

Atkinson, Rigelman, and Wang have regrouped now to troubleshoot some issues that plagued the team's vehicle during the contest, effectively shutting down any chance it had at victory. Though thwarted in their quest to win, the students say that the problem-solving skills they are developing through their post-race analysis are far more valuable than any bragging rights.

At the Branam Innovation Center, Atkinson reclines in the cockpit and attempts to start the engine. No luck. Rigelman moves from the engine area to the side of the machine and clicks the ignition himself. "Yeah, that switch is bad," he concludes. "That's what killed us on our last run [at Eco-marathon]."

Like all of the teams who compete in the Shell-sponsored contest, RHEV employs a strategy called "burn and coast" to maximize fuel efficiency during the competition. The driver will intermittently fire the engine, then shut it off while the vehicle utilizes its momentum to save fuel.

In Detroit, the street course was fraught with bumps and hills. Rigelman recalls having to tighten the vehicle's drive chain numerous times to compensate for the jarring effects of the uneven pavement.

"Because we had to tighten it so much it caused a lot of energy to be lost," which dropped the vehicle's fuel efficiency, he says.

The terrain at the finish line was also a little hillier than last year's course in Houston, Texas. When Atkinson, the driver, tried to employ one last burn sequence to correct for the terrain, the engine failed to fire.

"When I started with the team, I'd never worked with cars before. I had very little machining experience, very little design experience," recalls Wang.

The team has a mentoring system in place to help students such as Wang learn the ins and outs of internal combustion and machine design.

Now a senior, the mechanical engineering major does a lot of the team's design work using Solidworks, a computer-aided design software suite that is widely used in industry. He says that experience, and the opportunity the do hands-on prototyping, gave him a leg up when talking to employers.

"Employers know you're studying to become an engineer," says Wang. "They want to know what real-world stuff you've done."

Like Wang, Atkinson had limited hands-on experience when he joined the team. Now the sophomore mechanical engineering major is helping to create an improved design for a new vehicle that includes a lightweight carbon fiber body. It will replace the team's original vehicle that he drove during the race.

"We're a competitive team, but the main goal isn't competing, it's understanding how the car works. You learn a lot from the classroom, but until you do it hands-on you're never really going to understand how it works," he adds.

Rigelman, the team's engine lead, came to Rose-Hulman with previous automotive experience. But the RHEV team has already given the junior mechanical engineering major a leg-up with employers. It was his involvement with the group that helped him get a coveted internship this summer with SpaceX in California.

"Because of the experience I have with the competition team, and professors who know me and gave me recommendations, I was able to get an internship opportunity at SpaceX," he says.

Being a part of the RHEV team also has given Rigelman a chance to employ and enhance his mechanical background while mentoring others. And it has enabled him to hone valuable project management skills through collaboration and teamwork.

"Companies are definitely looking for those who want to be involved. They want to know the people who are going to engage themselves," he adds.

For the members of Rose-Hulman's Efficient Vehicles team, that engagement has led to the greatest win of all.