Vehicles and engineers are attention-magnets at SAE Supermileage

  • 20-Jun-2012 02:50 EDT
Penn State car:team.JPG

Penn State University-Behrend College's team and faculty advisor are shown with the car that achieved 1485 mpg over six runs on the 1.6-mi (2.6-km) course. (John Pearson)


The top SAE Supermileage 2012 team, Pennsylvania State University-Behrend College, chalked up a whopping 1485 mpg with their one-of-kind vehicle. Four teams exceeded 1000 mpg by completing the required six laps on the 1.6-mi (2.6-km) track while maintaining a rule-mandated average speed of 15 mph (24 km/h) and a maximum average speed of 25 mpg (40 km/h).

As required by the rules, every vehicle was powered by a Briggs & Stratton engine, with teams allowed the option of modifying the single-cylinder, four-stroke powerplant. All vehicles needed at least three wheels; however, the vehicle’s height, length, and width were unrestricted.

Designing and building a fuel-sipping, single-seater was a major undertaking for all teams.

“It’s a challenge for a team to design and build a car, and then have the vehicle pass through the technical inspection. And it’s even more remarkable to build a vehicle that’s durable enough to perform a high-mileage run on the required six laps,” Jim Gluys, Co-Chairman and Event Organizer of SAE Supermileage 2012, told SAE Magazines.

Gluys, who is Eaton’s Principal Engineer for Commercial Vehicle Transmissions, noted that nine teams successfully completed a qualifying run, while six teams passed the technical inspection process but fell short of earning a qualifying fuel economy run.

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor team’s chief engineer, Brett Merkel, said gaining proficiency in each of the various team-designated vehicle-development areas—including carbon-fiber monocoque chassis design and FEA analysis—did not happen quickly.

“It’s a several-months process,” he said.

The team’s engineering decisions had to fall in line with available resources.

As one example, “the top half of the body shell isn’t perfect. It could have used another shot out of the mold. But we didn’t have the money to re-do it,” said Merkel, adding “it’s just like real life because you’re not going to get infinite resources to do whatever project you want.”

Keeping tabs on the revenue stream was the responsibility of U of M team project manager Laura Pillari.

“The total budget was $15,000, and very little of that money went to waste on mistakes,” said Pillari. "As far as project management goes, it was a triangle of time, money, and scope. If you changed one thing, you had to adjust the others.”

In addition to university support, the rookie team got much-needed financial assistance from sponsors.

“We had a few key donations come in just as we were hitting the zero line,” Pillari said.

Alexandre Gosselin served as the team captain for the Universite de Moncton, a multiyear Supermileage team.

“When we started working in September 2011, we already had a vehicle. We had vehicle development documentation and an mpg score from the previous year. So when we went to a local company to seek sponsorship, we were able to put on the table what we had done,” said Gosselin.

The student engineering crew from the New Brunswick, Canada, team also used the lessons learned from prior competitions to make specific vehicle alterations.

Both the 2011 and 2012 vehicles used an all-aluminum chassis and a fiberglass body shell. But this year the car’s frame was 3.3 lb (1.5 kg) lighter, while the frame length was reduced by 16% and the width condensed by 22%.

“After two years of running the same chassis, there were a few things we wanted to change,” said Gosselin.

The body shell on the 2011 car was the team’s first experience with fiberglass.

“For this year’s car, we were more experienced with using fiberglass. We learned from last year’s mistakes and made improvements to the mold to make the fiberglass smoother and more professional-looking,” Gosselin said.

The veteran team took an eco-smart approach to design and development.

“If we know certain components work well, we like to re-use those components. It’s the same approach for the vehicle’s design features. If a design works well, there’s no real reason to change it. However, we typically tweak things a bit to make improvements, like we did this year with the engine’s starting system. We relocated it, and we changed the mounting bracket to make it lighter and more reliable,” Gosselin explained.

Sean Kiley, Education Business Development Manager-North America for software supplier PTC, said team members can expect long-term benefits from their involvement with Supermileage.

“If one of our 27,000 customers sees that a student has participated in an SAE event, that automatically catapults the student engineer to the top of the list when it comes to being a possible candidate for new-hire positions," Kiley said while watching the high-mileage activities. “That’s because these students have the hands-on experience of working with a team and doing so within tight time constraints. The idea that you can work in a team environment is really a differentiator.”

The top five teams with the highest mpg at this year’s event were:

1. Penn State University-Behrend College (1485 mpg)

2. Brigham Young University (1135)

3. Universite Laval (1051)

4. Northern Illinois University (1033)

5. University of Massachusetts-Amherst (843).

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