The 2016 USC Racing Team at the FSAE competition in Lincoln, Neb. Photo courtesy of USC Racing
In June, during their three-day drive back to California from Lincoln, Neb., members of the USC Racing team were already designing their next car. They had just finished the annual Formula SAE (FSAE) West competition, placing 27th out of the 70 schools in attendance and setting several personal records. This year, they plan on breaking into the top 15.
The FSAE program is just one of several student engineering design competitions by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). By designing, building and testing a formula-style, single-seat race car, participants gain firsthand experience at engineering design and project management.
The USC Racing team has been steadily improving their competition performance over the years, largely due to their dedication and tireless work efforts. Over the summer, members who were now working at internships all over the country, participated in video conference calls to discuss new ideas and progress.
“When we come back from competition, we start right away with writing down ideas and taking a look at what went well, what went wrong and where we can improve,” said Yann Staelens, faculty advisor for the team and senior lecturer in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (AME) department. “This past year was the first year we [had conference calls]. We came back in June and we had four meetings over the course of two months.”
During the academic year, through Preliminary and Critical Design Review sessions (PDR and CDR), the team of students are able to present their design ideas to alumni and industry experts for review before fabrication. The PDR, held in mid-September, had six employees from SpaceX in attendance, all were previous FSAE competitors and current judges.
At last year’s competition, they set personal bests by placing 9th in acceleration, 15th in design, 20th in skid pad and 23rd in autocross. However, the endurance event, consisting of 15 laps between two drivers, totaling 22 kilometers, set them back. During the first driver’s laps, a wire was severed by an exposed metal panel, leaving them unable to restart the car when switching to the second driver and incapable of finishing the race.
“They’re really good drivers and the car was solid,” Staelens said. “Whether something else would have happened, I can’t tell you that, but if we finished endurance, we would have finished within the top 15, maybe even top 10.”
It was this event that Anchal Jain, AME senior and the team’s captain and head of engineering, emphasized during the CDR in the beginning of November. Their way into the top 15 would be by increasing the reliability of the car, ensuring they would complete the event.
Project leads from each of the sub-teams presented on the specific ways in which they plan on improving, showcasing their research through technical analyses and computer simulations, which compared the proposed design to the previous year’s car. Each of the sub-teams, from powertrain to chassis to electronics to aerodynamics, had developed new ways to build a better car, working within the cost, time and weight constraints.
With the final design nearly complete, they are switching gears to focus on manufacturing with the assistance of Rodney Yates, the team’s technician advisor and AME instructional lab technician, and Mark Zhao, composites manufacturing lead and AME graduate student. Learning from last year, the new car was designed for ease of manufacturing and serviceability, resulting in a shorter build time and more testing days.
In addition to analyzing new systems and design choices, more testing days would mean more time for drivers to familiarize themselves and become comfortable with the car.
“Driving these formula cars is completely different than driving your Honda Civic or your sedan on the streets—your butt is on the floor, you’re kind of laying down, you’re wearing a helmet, you’re wearing all these harnesses, all this safety stuff. You’re very snug in there. The only thing you can really do is rotate the steering wheel and shift,” Staelens said.
Two years ago, the team invested in a driving simulator that recreates the FSAE competition tracks and provides additional training before getting into the actual car. While it helps build the driver’s confidence and knowledge, nothing beats on-the-track experience.
“It’s all about going the fastest,” Staelens said. “You need to be familiar with the car to be willing to go that fast on a very narrow track.”
The team plans on completing the new car by March, giving them just a couple of months of testing before it’s time to start their three-day drive back out to Lincoln.