Santa Clara University

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A Formula for Success

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Caption: Mike Oberti, far left, and Keenan O’Flaherty, far right) with Formula Hybrid team members. Photo courtesy of Keenan O’Flaherty

Five teams, five faculty advisors, twenty undergraduate students, thousands of decisions and a million details are all focused on one big contest—SAE’s Formula Hybrid. The competition challenges engineering college and university students to design, build, and compete with an open-wheel, single-seat, electric or plug-in hybrid-electric racecar conforming to a formula that emphasizes drive train innovation and fuel efficiency in a high-performance application.

Five interdisciplinary teams—electrical, body, powertrain, suspension, and controls—have been working on this challenge for over a year, not only in preparation for the fierce competition, but also because this is their Senior Design project. Managing the efforts and pulling all the details together are two 29-year old transfer students, Keenan O’Flaherty and Mike Oberti. “We set ourselves up like a start-up engineering firm,” said O’Flaherty; “Aside from our work on our own teams, Mike operates like the systems engineer and Chief Operating Officer; overseeing all design and build stuff to ensure that everything fits together from all the groups, and I operate like the CEO, handling the administrative end of the big picture.”

“Santa Clara had never participated in this competition,” said Oberti, “so it was extremely difficult to get things started. Just recruiting people to join the teams was incredibly challenging; we hand-selected those people who were excited to work and could contribute a specific expertise or quality to their team, but it was risky for people to sign on as we were initially having trouble lining up faculty advisors. We submitted a white paper listing all the reasons these types of projects fail—lack of funding, not a big enough team, not enough advising—found all the weak points and addressed them, and eventually received conditional approval to pursue the project in March, 2011. At any time safety issues could have shut us down. SCU had never had to deal with students working with more than 50 volts of electricty—ours is a 130 volt system. So our electrical team had to make a presentation to the University’s Environmental Health and Safety Director and an outside fire consultant on why the project was safe and why we could go forward.” O’Flaherty added, “I can’t tell you how many times we heard the word ‘no,’ but we were persistent and just kept going.”

With initial approval granted, the teams set about designing and building a diesel hybrid vehicle for the competition. Their car, which they built from the ground up, boasts a continuously variable transmission to perform at peak efficiency, combined with a diesel and hybrid electric engine. Biodiesel, an organic and purely renewable source, will be used to fuel the vehicle. Other sustainable elements: their design calls for minimal materials, they chose to use Teflon aluminum titanium because it will not degrade the environment; and no heavy metals are used.

“Transportation accounts for 27 percent of the world’s energy use,” said O’Flaherty. “With the University’s focus on sustainability, the Formula Hybrid competition just seemed like a natural for Santa Clara, and Mike and I really wanted to start a legacy in transportation sustainability here at SCU. There have been a lot of hurdles to overcome, but it has been worth it.” Oberti agreed, “The experience is overwhelming in a sense. Every issue we ran into is ingrained in me now; you can’t pay for experience like that. It’s been good and it’s been bad, but everything is usable. Now we have six juniors lined up to take up the work next year. To leave our footprint here, to bring this project to SCU has been really great.”