Auburn University’s first electric Formula One car was a Frankenstein monster.
“We definitely tried to inject this with lightning and bring it alive,” said Drew Cookston, senior in electrical engineering and member of Auburn Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Electric team.
Auburn’s Formula SAE Electric team was formed in 2014. Run entirely by students, the team was tasked with designing and building an electric Formula One car for competition.
It failed, and now, the electric team is merging with Auburn Formula SAE Combustion team.
“Yes, it was a failure, but it was a failure that had to happen,” said Jonathan Ashworth, president of Auburn Formula SAE Combustion team and senior in mechanical and electrical engineering.
Ashworth and Kyle Kubik, chief chassis engineer for Auburn Formula SAE and senior in mechanical engineering, said they weren’t surprised the Electric team’s first year performance.
The combustion team has more than 15 years of experience at its disposal when developing cars, according to Ashworth. When something goes wrong, the team is able to look back at previous models for guidance.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
The electric team was starting from scratch.
“A lot of combustion guys weren’t surprised at all because we know how hard it is to design and build a race car, much less when you have no experience and no structure to fall back on,” Ashworth said.
The Product Lifestyle
Ashworth said he treats Formula SAE like a company. The team has its own deadlines, procedures and does its own fundraising and sponsorship acquisition.
“The University expects us to go out there and get the next level of sponsorship ourselves, which is great because it drives us to have to get those skills and contacts that have made a big difference in pushing our program in the way it needs to go,” Ashworth said.
Formula SAE designs and builds a Formula One car each year. This includes making its own carbon-fiber composites, welding, engine work and machining parts. All in all, the team manufactures 90 percent of its Formula car in house, according to Ashworth.
After being a manufacturing team, Formula SAE becomes a race team. Each member of the team has an opportunity to drive the car they helped build, including the marketing team.
“It’s so powerful and so light, you can just throw it around like you’ve never felt in a car before,” Ashworth said. “You can feel the power in your butt ... It’ll go zero to 60 in 2.8 seconds, which is faster than any Ferrari you can buy.”
Sitting in their shop located in the basement of Wiggins Hall is AU 2013, one of the most successful cars in the team’s history, according to Ashworth. It came in second place overall at SAE International’s Lincoln, Nebraska competition and twelfth overall at the Michigan competition.
The team’s most recent car is on its way back from Hockenheim, Germany, where it competed in Formula Student Germany at Hockenheimring, a Formula One track that hosts the German Grand Prix.
“You get to be a part of the entire product lifestyle of something,” Ashworth said. “You get to start from scratch and move through every single step. When you go into the industry, you’re not going to get to be a part of that.”
Auburn University Formula SAE's 2013 car was designed and built completely by students. (Jim Little | Editor-in-Chief)
Failure is Great
The electric team, according to Cookston, started as a “small team of rookies with no automotive experience” who did not understand the scope of the project.
The electric team underestimated the time commitment when they took on the project, according to Cookston. The team did not get around to testing and collecting data on their engine, and the overall vehicle concept did not exist. To top it off, the team was not communicating effectively.
“The steering guy didn’t talk to the suspension guy, who didn’t talk to the frame guy,” Ashworth said. “If they had all just sat down and talked about how everything was going to work together as a whole, this wouldn’t be a problem. When they had to put it all together, you had to come up with this Frankenstein monster to make it work because it wasn’t thought out to begin with.”
Ashworth said he hopes merging the electric and combustion team will solve the problems the electric team faced.
Merging will give the electric team the experience and resources they need to complete the electric vehicle by its next deadline.
“We shared a shop with them, but we weren’t as involved as we probably should have been,” Ashworth said. “I know a lot of them worked really, really hard, but in the end, they just didn’t have the experience and the organizational standards that we do and that we fall back on because we’ve been around for 15 years.”
Moving forward, the team will have one chassis design and two groups building a combustion and electric powertrain, respectively.
“I think the whole team has bought into the idea of merging into one team in name and spirit,” Ashworth said. “I think we’re really excited for this upcoming year and seeing what our new guys can do.”
Formula SAE is now pushing to complete the electric vehicle from last year. The vehicle will serve as a test bench for the team to further improve the design of future electric vehicles and learn about electric powertrains and electric cars.
“If we never finish this, it doesn’t do us any good,” Ashworth said. “A failure is great if you learn from it, but if you can’t learn from it, it’s just a failure.”
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman