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Monday, April 28, 2014

Cross FIRST Robotics, Indy 500 and the Pinewood Derby, and you’ll get a really interesting competition

David Brooks

Here’s a drawback to electric cars that never occurred to me: They can be boring.

Boring, at least, from the engineers-like-to-wing-it point of view. ...

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Here’s a drawback to electric cars that never occurred to me: They can be boring.

Boring, at least, from the engineers-like-to-wing-it point of view.

“Here’s what I think: Electrics are simply too easy, too straightforward,” said Douglas Fraser of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. “Having hybrids, it definitely increases complexity, which is part of the interest.”

Before you think Fraser is crazy – an engineer lamenting one of the strengths of electric cars, their lack of complexity?!? – note that he’s talking about a very specific environment: The annual Formula Hybrid Competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It runs from today through Thursday, May 1.

Since getting started by Dartmouth in 2007, a rollout that I attended, Formula Hybrid has grown into an international attraction. This year a team from Turkey joins those from India, Brazil, Sweden, Taiwan and a bunch of other exotic places. Even Vermont!

College teams, and a few from high schools, spend $20,000 to $50,000 building and transporting a miniature version of an Indy race car that uses hybrid or all-electric power, then competes in a variety of speed, endurance and static contests to see who’s best. Think FIRST Robotics meets Formula 1 and the Pinewood Derby.

Fraser said Dartmouth structures Formula Hybrid as an educational tool, and for good reason.

“The standard engineering curriculum has not really kept up with this stuff,” he said.

“We’re evolving to incorporate more of this collaborative based learning,” said Amy Keeler, coordinating manager of the competition and the only full-time employee of Formula Hybrid. “It’s the essence of that type of teamwork, collaboration.”

Teams have anywhere from 6 to 100 people, said Keeler.

“The level of support (from schools) varies,” she said.

Some schools have Formula Hybrid as an accredited course, others leave it entirely up to an extra-curricular club. All 35 of the available slots are full of teams that have names like (my favorite) the Ampeaters.

The key to a hybrid vehicle is getting mechanical and electrical engines to work together, which is non-trivial.

“You can’t just bolt something in and expect things to move – you have to come up with some way of blending mechanical and electrical components,” said Fraser.

That’s why Formula Hybrid is tougher than Formula SAE Series, the three-decade-old program overseen by the Society of Automotive Engineers in which college teams build and compete mini-Indy races with combustion engines.

The Thayer School created Formula Hybrid as a spin-off from Formula SAE, partly because gas and diesel engines design is so mature – i.e., less exciting.

Formula Hybrid has matured as teams get more experience – the inaugural year, more than half the entries didn’t show up or could barely move – and car manufacturers have taken notice.

“GM is sending 12 people this year. Their goal is to recruit from the student participants,” said Fraser.

The mix of different systems in a hybrid vehicle has another result that plays into a friendly – well, mostly friendly – competition between engineering school majors, because cars appeal to gear-heads more than volt-heads.

“Teams mostly mechanical engineering students – it’s more difficult to get the electrical engineering students interested,” said Fraser. “The mechanical guys end up building these things. ... But these are cars running around with lethal voltages in them.”

Luring electrical engineering students has become a priority.

“We’ve increased the educational materials available to them. We mentor to them, connect the teams with industry engineers and experts, provide more information about what to expect in the electrical tech inspection,” he said.

Neat stuff – and not at all boring.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or Follow Brooks on Twitter @granitegeek.