UNCA mechatronics races to international competition

Justin Turner talks about the vast rules and regulations the kart must meet in order to be registered in the race. Photo by Jonathan Price.
Justin Turner talks about the vast rules and regulations the kart must meet in order to be registered in the race.
Photo by Jonathan Price.

Nick Baynard
A&F Staff Writer
[email protected]
The looks of surprised concern transform into amused grins as students and staff watch the nearly silent, electric race car speed across the grounds behind UNC Asheville’s Vance Hall on a sunny October afternoon.
The go-kart-sized race car is the handiwork of students in a club called Formula SAE, which stands for the Society of Automotive Engineers. The students built the electric race car with the intention of entering it into the Collegiate Design Series Competition. There, it will be pitted against other electric race cars built by students at other universities around the globe.
Even though most of the students in the club are in the mechatronics degree program, the project manager 38-year-old Chad Ekre said the club will perform better at the competition if there are students from a wide range of majors and concentrations.  
“One of the goals that we have for the club on this campus is to bring in more degree programs outside of engineering,” Ekre said. “We need business, management, marketing, graphic design and new media majors to get involved.”
The Formula SAE club needs these kinds of students at the Collegiate Design Series in addition to the speed and maneuverability of the race car. A significant part of the competition is focused on the business and organizational prowess of the university’s Formula SAE team.
“We feel like there are huge opportunities for other degree-seeking students and we’d like to capture their attention and imagination,” Ekre said. “At the competition, you’re presenting the design, the car and the team itself as a viable product.”
According to Ekre, participating in an event like the Collegiate Design Series is almost a foot-in-the-door for anybody looking to get hired at any manufacturing firm.
“Professional engineers that we’ve talked to from other school’s Formula SAE projects have all told us that it’s the key factor in getting the highly competitive jobs that they were looking for,” Ekre said. “Having Formula experience is one of the criteria that they really like to see.”
The car’s designers do most of the design work in the mechatronics computer lab in Rhodes-Robinson Hall, but the car itself can be found on the lower level of Vance Hall where all of the hands-on work takes place.
Paul Guenette, the 25-year-old main engineering lead, said the car you see right now is a working prototype.
“This is a test vehicle that we are using to develop the control systems for the real car,” Guenette said. “The motors and motor controllers are going to be moved to the real car when we’re ready for that.”
Before the race car can even get to the competition it has to meet a staggering 180 pages of safety regulations.
“This car runs at 36 volts, which is considered low-voltage and safe, but we’re allowed to go up to 300 volts, which could easily kill you,” Guenette said.
According to Ekre and Guenette, most of the cars entering into the competition are disqualified at the safety stage because the rules are so stringent.
Depending on the magnitude of the safety violation, the car can go on to the race stage if the violations are trivial enough to be fixed within a small amount of time.
“We actually bent the front end of the car by driving it too hard and the wheel almost fell off the last time we were testing it,” Guenette said.
In the short history of the Formula SAE club’s progress on this project, they have only had a few minor incidents with the car so far.
“We’ve gotten the power up to a point where the brakes don’t want to stop it anymore,” Ekre said.
Justin Turner, another member of the club said the value of the club is learning to follow the seemingly endless rules and regulations while figuring out how to create a car they can call their own.
“As a club, we want to build a race car that sticks to the safety guidelines,” 21-year-old Turner said. “It’s really strict to a point, but you can certainly still get to do what you want to with it.”