A Winning Formula: Hot Wheelz's Success at Formula Hybrid
by Ryan Black | published Aug. 20th, 2017
Coming off the tremendous success their 2016–2017 season culminated in, Hot Wheelz — RIT’s all-female racing team — has high ambitions for the new school year. Even with their victory at last May’s Formula Hybrid competition still fresh in mind, the team has set the bar high for reinventing their vehicle.
During the 2017–2018 academic year Hot Wheelz aims to both build a new car frame and make their vehicle a hybrid contender. The team’s leaders from this past year expressed confidence that the group can be successful in both endeavors, as well as build upon the team’s growth and successes last year.
Last Year’s Triumphs, This Year’s Goals
The aforementioned Formula Hybrid competition was a sweeping success for Hot Wheelz. This big end-of-year competition — run by Dartmouth College and a part of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) — took place May 1–4 in Loudon, N.H.
Hot Wheelz’s project manager last year, Missy Miller — a recently-graduated Industrial Systems Engineer — noted how the team took first prize for their project management presentation, among other accolades separate from the actual competition.
“We received the I.E.E.E. Electric Vehicle Award,” said Miller, describing it as “basically, they really liked our design, they liked how well we integrated everything together."
The event itself challenged students from several colleges to design and engineer a fully-functional formula-style electric or plug-in hybrid race car to compete in various contests.
“This was our second year competing in Formula Hybrid in the electric-only class,” said Caitlin Babul, the team’s chief electrical engineer last year and a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate. “And we came in first place.”
Of course when they return to Formula Hybrid in 2018, Hot Wheelz very much plans to show up with a hybrid vehicle. Becky Michalski — Hot Wheelz’s chief mechanical engineer and fifth year Mechanical Engineering student — noted that for the past two years, as well as when they raced at President Destler’s e-dragster event, they’ve been all electric.
They will aspire to make a car that not only has both an IC engine and electric system, but a vehicle that will use them in synchronicity. The vehicle's engine would charge its batteries, and then use that energy to power the car's motor when driven electrically.
The extra work integrating a car’s systems more mechanically and electrically makes building a hybrid that much more of an endeavor. “It’s going to be a very big design challenge,” said Babul. “None of the girls had ever worked with an engine before, so that’s a whole learning opportunity.”
She conveyed how much more regarded it is to enter as a hybrid vehicle, pointing out how the competition is called “Formula Hybrid” after all. "There are teams that do it, it’s just really difficult to be successful with it," stated Michalski. Nonetheless there’s confidence that within the next year or two Hot Wheelz will have a functional hybrid racing machine — ready to compete.
In addition to their big hybrid plans for this year, the team will also take upon the challenge of building a new frame. It is being designed by Michalski.
“There are teams that will reuse their same frame for like four, five, six years and then just change the components that are on the actual car,” she pointed out. “But what we want to do is keep the cycle of constant innovation.”
What Makes a Winning Team
Going from the 2015–16 to the 2016–17 academic year, Hot Wheelz’s team more than doubled in size; this was largely due to an influx of first-year and second-year students. With initially more than 80 girls, across more than 10 subgroups, Miller admitted how challenging it could be to coordinate everyone.
“No one really knows each other coming in,” Michalski noted. “And then it’s like ‘oh hey ... look at all these people.'”
Babul pointed out how so many girls join the team at the beginning of the year with no experience working on a racing vehicle at all. “The whole purpose of our team is to teach how to build a race car,” she noted. “A lot of us don’t get the chance to do a lot of the hands-on stuff in class, so this is a way for us to learn all of that stuff before we go off into a career.”
“They join a subgroup that they’re interested in, they learn all about that system, they help design that system and they help build that system — the car.”
Despite their inexperience, many of the incoming new students easily pick things up. “We put them right into design and build,” explained Babul. “They join a subgroup that they’re interested in, they learn all about that system, they help design that system and they help build that system — the car.”
Many of the then first-years caught on so quickly that they'll make up about half of this year's subgroup leads — and there are many teams to lead.
Michalski listed out several, including the aerodynamics, cockpit, drive-train, electric-mounting, steering, suspension and wheel assembly teams. “And then there’s four electrical groups,” added Babul. “It’s circuit design, programing and telemetry, ‘electrical power train’ and ‘safety systems.'”
While having so many different subgroups work in collaboration is reflective of how inherently multi-disciplinary building a racing vehicle is, the makeup of the Hot Wheelz team is unique compared to other schools.
“Most of the other universities have either mechanical or electrical engineers and that’s really it,” said Miller. “We’re unique in that we welcome anybody, from any major and any background to come. Like, we have a Psychology major. If she was at another school, I don’t know if they would let her join.” As Miller alluded to, several majors are represented on Hot Wheelz:
- Industrial Engineering
- Computer Engineering
- Chemical Engineering
- Electrical Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Biomedical Engineering
- Computer Science
- Engineering Technology
- Mechanical Engineering Technology
Michalski added that this Psychology student is going to be a subgroup lead on the 2017–2018 team. Even if someone has no background with formula racing, the team is more than willing to give individuals who care — and are willing to learn — a chance.
But between the arrival of new members, their vast numbers and various teams of different functions, the team still has to always figure out how to get everyone to work together.
“We give them food,” joked Miller, before noting how Babul and Michalski as the chief engineers helped facilitate the necessary communication. Michalski defined her and Babuls’ roles as “integrators.” She also explained not only how essential communicating across subgroups is, but how intrinsic it is to building a formula-style car.
“... it doesn’t matter if you have a steering system if you have no wheels to steer. So a lot of it is out of necessity, you have to interact with each other.”
“So like, you design the steering system and you’re like ‘great, I designed this awesome steering system,'” she said. “But it doesn’t matter if you have a steering system if you have no wheels to steer. So a lot of it is out of necessity, you have to interact with each other.”
This holds true as Hot Wheelz embarks on building a new car frame and hybrid vehicle. Last year's successes, built upon their multitude of perspectives and ability to effectively communicate with one another, has them feeling confident about taking on such challenges.