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UNM’s first EV car places No. 16 in Formula SAE contest in Michigan

July 8, 2022 - Kim Delker

Photo: the 2022 team at competition in Michigan
The 2022 FSAE team at the competition in Michigan

The well-known saying “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” might be an accurate way to sum up this year’s UNM LOBOmotorsports team’s performance in the latest international contest of collegiate electric cars.

The University of New Mexico’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) team came in No. 16 out of 65 teams from programs around the world in the June 15-18 competition at the Michigan International Speedway near Detroit.

And while UNM did not actually get an opportunity to run the car at competition due to not passing the technical inspection, the team is proud of the fact that they were able to place so highly despite some challenges, especially since this is the team’s first time with an EV at competition after almost 25 years of building internal combustion cars.

As FSAE director John Russell said, only 12 of the teams were able to race at all (and only five were able to compete in the acceleration event), the fact that UNM’s team placed 16 speaks to how well-prepared the team was.

“There were a lot of teams that couldn’t get ready, including many from large and prestigious engineering programs,” Russell said. “It’s a challenging competition. We're basically designing and building a Tesla from scratch. If just one wire is bad, it kills you. A small change in circuitry could mean a total redesign.”

The team was able to garner points from the design, business and cost presentations and got through the mechanical, battery accumulator and recharging tests, but it was a 5V relay switch that stopped the team in its tracks during the electrical inspection. According to the rules, if there is a fault in the system, the car should shut down and only be able to restart manually for safety. Instead, the UNM car restarted automatically once the fault went away. To be within the rules, they needed a 5V relay switch, which was not able to be acquired at competition.

“Many cars don’t pass, so we certainly weren’t alone, but it’s frustrating,” Russell said. “It was one of our best cars and received a lot of compliments from judges on the design.”

In results released after the event, the UNM team placed No. 7 in the sales presentation, No. 15 in cost and tied for 19th place in design.

With various challenges related to supply chains, the ongoing pandemic and the fact that the team was designing and building an entirely new kind of car, Russell was not sure they would even have a car to take to Michigan. But many long hours by the team paid off, and although the team did not finish in time to do testing and driving of the car (which affected the overall scoring because they lacked validation data), the car was ready and running.

Russell said he credits project manager Rhianna Oakley, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, with ensuring that the 18-person team was ready for competition, no matter how difficult it was. And he said that 2023 project manager Addison Portman is already making leadership decisions for next year.

“Our program creates leaders, not just managers who oversee things,” Russell said. “That is why so many employers love to hire our students. They already know how to get things done.”

Even though he knew that this year’s car would not be perfect, Russell wanted to make sure the car made it to competition because it’s such a learning experience for students.

“We still learned a lot even though we didn’t know if the car would run,” he said.

The main lesson learned is that the team needed more time to test and run the car. He believes that the issue with the relay switch would have been caught in testing.

“Our goal next year will be to have the car done two months in advance so we can run the car and have validation data,” he said. “But we’re heading in the right direction.”

Portman agreed, saying that it’s crucial to make sure the team has good time management and efficiency.

“A key to success at competition is getting through the technical inspections as early as possible to ensure that the car is ready for the design events as well as the dynamic events,” she said. “The experience also showed me how valuable it will be for the team to verify the performance of each system after manufacturing to match the analysis models done in our design phase.”

Jarrod Montoya, 2022 deputy project manager, said the FSAE experience for him has been extremely valuable, teaching him the "vital soft skills necessary for working in a large group with many different perspectives while keeping focus on the big picture."

"This program as a whole has been an extremely valuable experience in so many ways. From learning engineering design methods, analysis and physical component/system production to proposing ideas and defending them with advisors and higher-ups."

He is proud of both the team's performance and the way they represented UNM.

"LMS22 [LOBOMotorsports 2022] did not skip a beat once we arrived. Our team showed some of the highest levels of professionalism and continued hard work at competition; our product really spoke for itself," Montoya said. "This competition was very meaningful and provided our team with the opportunity to really showcase what so many have dedicated the better part of this past year to."

Team member Ely Teran said that being a part of the 2022 team was a “surreal experience.”

“It was the culmination of all of the hard work we as a team had put in to be able to get there. Seeing our car in its completed state with other teams admiring and asking questions showed us how great of a job we had done,” he said.

Even though the result was not what the team hoped for, Teran said the team laid down a great foundation for teams to follow.

“FSAE has been an amazing experience and given the opportunity to do it again, I would,” he said. “There is so much you learn by being a part of the program that you can't find anywhere else.”

Russell points out that most successful EV programs have taken several years to get that way, so continuing to compete, adapt and perfect will ensure that future years’ EVs compete well.

Russell is also in the process of reaching to other departments to grow the team and gain knowledge that could be helpful on the EV. The three-semester program has been based in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, but now with the electrical component, students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will be able to take a senior design course, ECE 419, as part of the program. And he is reaching out to the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering to integrate FSAE into their senior design curriculum as well.

Looking forward to the 2023 team, Portman said she has several goals as leader, in particular, preparing the team for competition early on, which means adhering to the design and manufacturing schedule.

In terms of changes on the car, she said a lot of 3D modeling and simulations will be taking place to determine if a second motor would be beneficial. The team will also be looking for ways to improve the suspension design for better dynamic performance.

Russell said he is proud of the team, who ventured into uncharted territory in this contest, especially the 16 members who traveled to Michigan.

“They were never not working on the car and making it better,” he said.

The Formula SAE program is funded almost entirely through private donations. Contributions can be made online.