A group of students in gray shirts file out of a cramped classroom onto the road. Shining flashlights to see through the darkness, they huddle around the frame of a short, black car.
One yanks on the pull start.
The engine roars to life, and the car takes off down the road, ready for competition.
The vehicle will race this week at the Baja Society of Automotive Engineers regional competition in Oregon. The competition challenges collegiate teams to design, build and race an off-road vehicle, testing the cars in categories such as maneuverability, acceleration and endurance.
Each car in the competition must be built using the same type of engine, but the design of other parts such as the gear box and transmissions are up to each team, said Dylan Aramburu, a second-year mechanical engineering student on the UCLA Team. This gives teams the opportunity to fabricate their own customized parts.
A lot of teams buy gearboxes to put in their cars, but UCLA’s Baja team makes its own from scratch, said Anthony Tyson, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and one of the project leaders for the team.
The race is on to replace steel cars with carbon-fibre cars. All of the major automakers have inked deals to make the switch. The reason being that carbon-fibre is:
“10 times stronger than regular-grade steel and one-quarter of steel’s weight.”
“Using carbon fiber in lieu of conventional steel can lower the weight of a vehicle component by up to 50 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Cutting a car’s weight by 10 percent can improve fuel economy by as much as 8 percent.”
Weight is a big deal in cars. The heavier the car, the bigger the engine and, typically, the lower the fuel economy. This is especially true for electric cars who face limited mileage on one charge, reduce that weight by 10% and you can go an extra 50 miles.
Currently, carbon-fibre is expensive to make and only really used in racing cars. BMW, the first company to invest heavily in carbon, has already found ways to cut production costs.
“The carbon fiber fabric is placed in a mold, and resin is injected under high pressure and temperature. The process, which once took 20 minutes per part, now requires less than 10 minutes. Robots cut and handle the material and components, which previously were made by hand.
The robots will help BMW achieved big savings. A pound of carbon fiber now costs only a third as much as a pound used in the M3 CSL coupe’s roof when the limited-edition car was introduced in the 2004 model year.”
It’s exciting to think what this technology can do, not only for cars, but trucks, planes, boats, etc.
Energy researcher Amory Lovins, in this TED talk, thinks that when we fully start using carbon-fibre vehicles fuel economy in cars will shoot up to 200 miles/gallon. He says that halving the weight of the car creates compound effects: lighter car, requires a lighter engine, which makes the car even lighter.