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Tufts engineers gain knowledge beyond the classroom to build hybrid racecar

Published: Friday, October 19, 2012

Updated: Friday, October 19, 2012 08:10


Courtesy Chris Jackson

The Tufts Hybrid Racing Team, comprised of students in the School of Engineering, devotes hours to building a hybrid electric racecar for the New Hampshire competition.


These days, the auto shop of the Tufts Bray Laboratory is buzzing with activity. Approximately 33 students on the Tufts Hybrid Racing Team spend anywhere from 30 to 100 hours there each week building a hybrid electric car in preparation for the New Hampshire Motor Speedway competition in May.

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Thomas James has guided the team as its faculty advisor since its inception in 2008. 

His role is to act as a resource for the students and ensure the safety of the project. According to James, the team consists of a variety of engineers from different concentrations.

“I approached Dean [of the School of Engineering] Linda Abriola and we talked about making it a School of Engineering team because to build a hybrid racecar, we need mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software managers and accounting types,” he said. “It takes a whole team for people to build a car.”

The team is split into sub-teams for the drivetrain, electrical systems, chassis and un-sprung weights. Each section is crucial in the building process of various parts of the car. The holistic practice of creating a hybrid car, however, remains a substantial challenge, according to lead engineer of the chassis team Alex Chan.

The team must also build a car that complies with the competition’s requirements in order to beat out other schools.

“The premise is that each school is being given the challenge of designing a weekend hybrid race car,” Chan, a senior, said. “We have to design and build something that drives quickly and is safe but also think in terms of moving forward technologically.”

Project Leader Chris Jackson, a mechanical engineer, described the different aspects of the competition, which include more than just racing.

“The simple breakdown is in the static events, we have to have a business presentation. We have to basically sell the car as if we were going to make a limited production run,” Jackson, a senior, said. “Assuming we’ve passed the technical inspections, we’ll go to the dynamic events on the track  [where] each event is allocated to a certain amount of points.”

Last year, the team’s car failed to pass technical inspections, so the team is excited to compete again this year with an improved hybrid car.

“We’re planning on making some changes to the car to get it in the right safety specifications so that we qualify [for] inspection,” Chan said. “And then we want to basically get our car running as quickly as possible so that we can do as much testing as possible. If we can have a car that runs well, maybe we can do further modifications if necessary.”

While the team must create a business presentation as a component of  the competition, they must also sell their car in order to locate sponsorships that support the team. 

Jackson said that the team produces their own marketing brochures to attract it’s sponsors.

“There [are] three types of sponsors who we reach out to and ask for money, and sometimes it’s alumni and sometimes it’s companies,” Jackson said. “Sometimes, we also ask companies for discounts on parts or to donate the parts.”

With the support of these sponsors and a considerable amount of time and energy, the team has grown considerably over the past four years.

“Our [previous] car was basically an old frame off of some other school’s car,” Chan said. With an increase in student enthusiasm, the team has been able to achieve more, including last year, when the team designed and created a hybrid car on its own.

The Tufts Hybrid Racing Team is defined by student control at every stage of the process.

“We run the entire program as students,” Jackson said. “Not just the design and the building, [but] we handle the management, fundraising and marketing as well.”

James believes the work of the students is the team’s strongest feature and has helped him reform his role as faculty advisor.

“Initially, I was very hands-on, [but] I realized right away that the Project Leader would always be in my shadow,” James said. “Now, I meet with the Project Leader in my office every Friday ... and then the actual students interact directly with the Project Leader.”

In the future, James hopes to include more students from other engineering disciplines in leadership positions to build upon the knowledge that these students bring to the table.

“The car is primarily electrical, because we’re building a hybrid, and it would really be great if we had the next project leader be an electrical engineer or computer science engineer because we can use [the] help in that area,” James said. “So, I’m hoping the leadership will also become interdisciplinary, even though the team is very interdisciplinary.”

Students chose to become involved in building the racecar to expand their knowledge of engineering.

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