Student-built race car does 0-60 in 3 secs

Students in MIT Motorsports build super fast Formula SAE cars (in red)

Deep in the recesses of the MIT Museum, one group of students is tooling. Yet no one is struggling with a pset, or studying for a test; rather, boards are being cut, things are being welded, and the sound of power machinery is heavy on the ears. Indeed, the MIT Motorsports team is hard at work applying their knowledge to a race car.

The MIT FSAE (Formula Society of Automotive Engineers, also known as MIT Motorsports) designs and builds a competition Formula One race car. Made with a $30,000 budget, the car can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in three seconds, and can max out at a lateral 1.5 Gs — more than any street car is capable of, according to Team Manager Erich Brandeau ’12. Sporting a push-button shifter for the custom-designed Engine Control Unit and running on a tank of ethanol, the car maxes out at around 85 miles per hour.

All of these contribute to giving the MIT Motorsport Team an edge in collegiate Formula SAE compeitions, where the car is put to the test both on and off the track. The team competes once per year, usually at the FSAE West competition in Fontana, California. There, the car is judged in various events that test its design as well as its performance, comprised of three categories — Inspection, Statics, and Dynamics — which Brandeau describes as “really intense”.

During inspection, the vehicle is scrutinized by a team of professional engineers, where it must meet hundreds of strict requirements. First comes a visual test, where every aspect of the car is looked at to ensure safety. For instance, a driver must be able to get out of the car in five seconds, and the car. A hydraulic lift test of 45 and 60 degrees follows; this tests the car for potential leaks and looks at its lateral acceleration. Lastly, the brakes are tested, followed by a noise test to see if the car is under the 110 decibel limit.

Static events involve all other aspects of the car that do not involve motion. The crew must justify any design choices made, and a cost report must be presented. The team presents a business model, acting as if they are a start-up company and the automobile is their product.

Finally, there are the Dynamic events. A drag race tests the car’s linear acceleration, followed by a figure eight track race to assess the lateral acceleration. The autocross track, a one kilometer level made of cones, tests the car’s maneuverability. The biggest point-getter and flagship event of the competition is the Endurance race. Most teams can’t finish this 22 kilometer behemoth, which examines the vehicle’s reliability. MIT Motorsports was one of the few to finish last time.

This past June, MIT Motorsports placed eighth in FSAE West, the team’s highest finish ever. The main competition for MIT Motorsports is the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Oklahoma, and Oregon State University. Traditionally, the team designed the car the fall before the competition in June, and constructed the car from IAP to May. However, such a short turnaround proved problematic for the team.

“It was really tight and crammed, so we wanted to think about how we can do it better,” Brandeau says.

As a result the crew switched to a 2-year cycle, in which the car is designed and built one year, then further tested, developed and validated the next. This cycle caused FSAE to miss the 2009 competition, but the delay paid off with their 2010 success.

Currently, the cycle is at one and a half years, with one year dedicated to the car’s construction. “Essentially, we’ll start designing at IAP for the next car even though one car is still being built and developed,” states Brandeau.

Each year, a new car is built from scratch. Although parts may be used from previous years, a completely new construction is required. This can be due to either drastic design changes or adjustments to competition guidelines — for example, each year a noticeably different frame for the car is required.

Construction on the 2011 competition car started this past weekend, and the team’s major anticipated upgrade is improved aerodynamics. In the past, the car aerodynamics were considered to have little effect at the car’s speeds, and the team had neither the time nor the expertise to implement aerodynamic principles well.

“Beforehand, we didn’t have the resources, but now we do,” claims Michael DeMeo ’11, the team’s new aerodynamics lead. Aside from aerodynamic improvements, new changes include a new wheel configuration, and the addition of an electronic traction control system with instant feedback.

Two years out, the group may make an electric version of the car. There is a contest for electric vehicles in Europe in particular that Brandeau has set his sights on. “It would be pretty similar to [the current car],” he said.

Brandeau said that the most significant modification would be changing the engine to a new electrical system. If the team decides to pursue the concept, design for the electrical car would begin this IAP.

Organizationally, MIT Motorsports is divided into three groups — Chassis, Powertrain, and Management. There are usually about eight core team members in the shop throughout the year, with another two dozen coming in to help throughout the year.

Newer members generally start with building first. “It’s a complex system, and the best way to learn about it is to build it,” Brandeau explains.

“But once you learn about the car and how it works and want to design something, every one’s welcome to.”

The team was founded in 2001, and in 2009 the Department of Mechanical Engineering offered a role in the the construction of the car as an option in the 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing) class. Sponsors include Ford, General Motors, the American Corn Grower’s Association, and the Edgerton Center (who provides the machine shop and workspace).

The team concerns itself with teaching and learning aspects of the program over competition. As a result, not a lot of experience is required. “I probably knew less than anyone. They turned me into something useful,” DeMeo says.

Brandeau adds, “The teaching and learning comes before the competitiveness. That’s not to say that racing a car isn’t fun.” He believes that such design is “closer to the real-world” than other clubs at MIT.

By emphasizing application, the team prides itself on it’s ability to teach others about manufacturing and car design. The group has come a long way since its inception in terms of performance, and it looks to improve upon its eighth place finish at the next competition in June. Until then, the group is always looking for ways the vehicle can be altered or improved, and they will continue to tool away (literally) for the next competition.