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Hybrid Car Races are a Bridge from Students to Carmakers

Flkr Creative Commons / Plug in America

This week some of the world’s top engineering students converge at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway to race hybrid cars. The cars are student designed and built, and for some of those students, a good showing at Loudon is a ticket to ride.

Most gear-heads want their cars to sound like finely the tuned performance machines that normally power around the loudon race track and not like over-sized lawnmowers. 

But the forty teams of race car builders have come to New Hampshire to compete inthe world’s premier competition for student built hybrid race cars, and they aren't worried about how the cars sound.

The students spend thousands of man hours to design and assemble their cars. Ira Goldberg -- with the University of Michigan -- says for the last six months his team has been living and breathing their car.

"We’ve had our struggles along the way." Goldberg recalls, "We’re working trying to get our car finished and together, it’s been very complicated, down the homestretch we’ve had people there just 24 hours. I know that some people have slept in our project center."

Teams compete in a bunch of categories, acceleration, cornering, and even a mock pitch to investors for their design. But most of them are hoping to win the crown jewel for hybrid racers: the endurance event. In that race, each car gets a set amount of “energy” at the beginning: so if one car has more batteries it gets less gas, and vice versa.

The goal is to finish the race as fast as possible without running out of gas, but Doug Fraser, the event's organizer, says "if they finish with a lot of fuel left in their tank they’ve wasted it, because they could have used it to go a little faster."

He says two years ago an Italian team won the competition after carefully recalibrating their machine to American gas.

Fraser says, "when they came in from the end of the endurance event, there wasn’t a thimbleful left of fuel in their tank."

Before the cars can race, they are evaluated from top to bottom by officials and design judges. They test the chassis and electrical systems for safety, they test the noise level of the cars, and they use a hydraulic jig to tip each car on it side to make sure it won’t flip too easily.

But the judges -- most of whom are provided by car-makers -- are there for another reason too.

"They’ll look at a car with a student standing there," Doug Fraser explains, "and they may see something interesting on the car and they’ll discuss the design and they’ll ask the student why they did something this way instead of maybe doing it that way and it’s really not unusual at the end of that discussion to see the judge hand the kid a business card and say you know, give me a call."

This competition is flush with these recruiters. Karen Garby is with Ford, and is looking over the resumes of a trio of seniors.

"Product development itself is hiring at least 100 newly graduated engineers each year, and the hybrid group is taking a big chunk of them," she tells them, "And since you guys have this experience, you’re high on our list."

There are tables set up where career counselors go over student resumes and talk about what it’s like to work for a big auto-company. For a car-makers, you couldn’t ask for a better incubator for talent. For the students, you couldn’t get a better opportunity.

Ira Goldberg, from the University of Michigan team got a job with Ford right out of school.

"Yeah I actually graduated yesterday," he says, "I started work two weeks ago and I actually took my third week off to go to this competition."

The competition finishes up on Thursday, when the judges crown an overall winner after five events.

But the real winners are the ones who -- like Goldberg now -- will be settling in at their new jobs in a few months’ time.

For photos and videos of the event, check out the Formula Hybrid Blog.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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