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Michigan State formula racing team makes big change to electric car set-up

Members of the MSU Formula Racing Team make adjustments to last year’s car.
Cameron Hesano
Members of the MSU Formula Racing Team make adjustments to last year’s car.

The MSU student club builds and races a car every year, but this year’s set-up will be powered by an electric engine. It’s a serious switch that takes more planning and execution to work.

The Michigan State Formula Racing team has been building a race car from scratch every year since 1989, but this year, the vehicle will undergo one drastic change.

The MSU team will forgo their traditional internal combustion engine—run on 93 octane gasoline—to compete with a fully electric engine for the first time in program history.

Team project manager and mechanical engineering senior Ronak Patel said that the decision to switch to an electrical engine has been influenced by many factors over the past few years.

“We are a competitive team and a lot of the other competitive teams that place near us, they've made the switch to electric. So, in order to stay in a more competitive realm, we made that decision,” Patel said. “The second (reason) is it allows us to offer our students the opportunity to work on an electric powertrain. A lot of the industry — not just automotive — is switching to sustainable energy options or electrical options.”

MSU Formula Racing Team tests last year’s car before competition.
Cameron Hesano
MSU Formula Racing Team tests last year’s car before competition.

MSU placed 19 out of 120 cars in last year’s Formula SAE Michigan competition, after being graded on design, business presentation, cost, fuel efficiency, autocross, acceleration, skidpad and endurance.

All 20 members of the team have designated roles in the production of the vehicle, with Patel responsible for maintaining relationships with the team’s dozens of sponsors, creating new sponsor relationships and sustaining the team’s finances.

Sponsors gift the MSU Formula Racing team everything from monetary donations to necessary materials and services to set it up for success season after season—especially with the new jump to an electric powertrain.

“We're fortunate that we have the sponsors that we do that allow us to make the switch,” Patel said. “Making the switch to electric is rather costly, and not a lot of teams are able to do that. So, we're fortunate enough to have some corporate sponsors to help us out they're financially able to make that switch.”

While Patel coordinated the financial logistics to help the team transition to an electric engine, chief engineer and engineering senior Cameron Haesano is in charge of the design of the car and making sure that the team meets all of their technical goals by deadlines.

The process of piecing together an internal combustion engine was familiar for returning members after using the same kind of powertrain for the past 33 years. Switching to the new engine has been a learning curve for the club, especially since the advice the students can get from professors and professionals is minimal due to competition guidelines.

“We've been able to get our motors to work and everything. But it's just been a new challenge and new things to troubleshoot because we can't really rely on anything that we've experienced before with the engine,” Haesano said. “It was like, ‘Well, if it's one thing that we know from experience, it’s probably this,’ but with the new electric motor, we’re kind of in the dark winging it.”

Members of the MSU Formula Racing Team make adjustments to last year’s car.
Cameron Hesano
Members of the MSU Formula Racing Team make adjustments to last year’s car.

According to the team’s calculations, the electric engine should provide a higher top speed and quicker acceleration. But, despite the huge mechanical switch, both Patel and Haesano said that most of the basics of the car that they build year after year have stayed the same.

“The ideologies, principles and manufacturing processes that we use for the chassis suspension, aerodynamics, all of that is staying the same,” Patel said. “The only thing changing is that powertrain. A way to kind of combat any difficulties we may have right out of the gate is we tried to keep a similar setup to what the internal combustion powertrain looked like.”

This year, because of the engine switch, the Spartan team does not have to compete until mid-June, a month later than usual. The competition that Michigan State participates in is just about an hour away from campus, at the Michigan International Speedway.

“There's definitely a lot of different hurdles,” Haesano said. “Just because it's nothing we've ever dealt with before. We haven't really had any major problems yet this year—fingers crossed.”

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