13 December 2010
On 17 November after 140 days of travelling, including 70 days at the steering wheel, a team of Imperial undergraduates, postgraduates and alumni drove their all-electric Radical SRZero supercar to the finish of a 26,000-kilometre journey. Reporter finds out how the talented team designed and built the electric car in just nine months before driving it down the Pan-American Highway, conquering some of the world’s hardest roads and overturning common perceptions about electric vehicles.
When the 10-strong Racing Green Endurance team began planning their ambitious trip through the Americas in 2009, they had a number of key aims: to demonstrate the exciting potential of Electric Vehicles (EVs) as a low carbon form of transport, to encourage a younger generation to take up science and technology subjects, by presenting to school children in every country they drove through, and to communicate their experiences to the public through the international media.
The team decided to design something flamboyant, sporty and memorable”
Alexander Schey, Project Manager of Racing Green Endurance and a Mechanical Engineering graduate, explains that the team wanted to challenge the notion that electric cars are slow, have a limited range, take too long to charge and are generally far too boring to compete with the excitement of an internal combustion engine car. By driving an electric car down the longest road in the world, across varied terrain and extreme climates, they would prove the robustness of EVs.
To maximise the amount of attention the electric car received along the route, the team decided to design something flamboyant, sporty and memorable.
“Public perception is important because if people still believe that electric cars are slow and boring, then big car companies will never have the incentive to mass produce EVs in a big way, as the market would be too small. Mass production is really important in the face of depleting fossil fuels,” Alex explains.
The planning and design of the electric car took just nine months, with the team working round the clock in a garage they rented in Maida Vale. Academics, including Professor Nigel Brandon, Director of the Energy Futures Lab, Dr Ricardo Martinez Botas (Mechanical Engineering) and Postdoctoral Researcher Dr David Howey (Mechanical Engineering), offered the team advice on the design, engineering and mechanics of the car and also helped them to manage the team’s finances and health and safety issues.
Ricardo explains that ensuring the electrical and mechanical robustness of the car was paramount. “We followed College procedures for health and safety in the same way as we would for any research project, and the team conducted safety audit and risk assessments on every aspect of the development.”
The main design challenges were finding an appropriate waterproof packaging solution for the many batteries and other components in such a small car. Other challenges came in working out the bugs in the control software they had developed and keeping the car safe.
The skills the team learnt from their engineering degrees helped with the technical side of designing the car, boosted by their involvement in the Faculty of Engineering’s Imperial Racing Green project, which introduced them to the technicalities of building electric vehicles.
Sponsorship was essential for the programme to succeed and the students worked hard to pull in money to cover publicity and travel, and to buy individual components for the car. The team ended up with 35 sponsors. Some, such as KPMG, Continental and Capris, provided cash, while others, such as Radical Sportscars, which makes petrol powered track racers, Imperial spin-out EVO Electric and battery company, Thunder Sky, provided the team with the chassis and bodywork, motors and batteries.
They were assisted by the legal team at Imperial, who helped them draw up contracts. Commenting on the team’s success in acquiring so much funding in the heart of the recession, Dr David Howey, Staff Manager of the project, said: “They are a very resourceful and tenacious bunch – they just kept pushing and never gave up.”
After months of logistics, rigorous checking and trial runs, the team set off from Alaska on 3 July 2010. Fourteen-hour driving shifts were exhausting but Alex says that the experience of driving the electric car made it all worth it. “Before you know it, you are silently gliding along at 100mph with just the noise of the wind and the tyres on the road to accompany you. The direct steering makes for an unbelievable handling experience,” he adds.
The weather was one of the team’s key concerns before they left, as the car had an open top. The team coped by layering-up in the higher altitudes, and sporting swimming shorts and flip flops in the torrential rain in Central America.
As for the car, Ricardo was impressed with its durability. “In terms of the mechanics, the performance of the car in these extreme conditions and terrains – from the Andes to the desert – was fantastic: this alone is a massive achievement for the team,” he commented.
The team kept in close contact with the College throughout the trip but only reported a couple of minor problems. “Having a shock absorber fail while driving and causing me to spin off the road was definitely the scariest part,” Alex confesses. “Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic and the car came to rest in soft soil, but this could easily have spelled disaster!”
While the drive was a key attraction for the team, it was the outreach activities that really made their trip. One of Alex’s highlights included talking to pupils who met the team at the finish line in Ushuaia, Argentina. “Our presentation skills honed during our time at uni helped us significantly,” Alex said.
We most definitely changed the way they look at electric cars”
The bold appearance of the car had the desired effect and drew in the crowds wherever they went. “We had literally thousands of people come up to us in the street and ask what it is, why we’re doing it, and how an electric car could be this cool,” says Alex.
The only undergraduate in the team, Pambo Palas (Mechanical Engineering), adds: “Being able to tell the crowds that the vehicle can travel some 340 miles on a single charge for only £5 and seeing how surprised they were, made me feel incredibly happy. We most definitely changed they way they look at electric vehicles!”
To communicate their experiences to the wider public the team wrote a blog, used Facebook and Twitter and uploaded countless photos. They also managed to get Claudio von Planta, a world-famous documentary film maker, to join them on the trip and, as a result, a documentary series of the project will begin airing on BBC World News on 1 January.
While the official journey is over, the work continues for one of the Racing Green Endurance team members, PhD student Clemens Lorf, who has collected vehicle and battery degradation data from the whole journey, which will provide a tremendous research database for Imperial. Ricardo, Clemens’ PhD supervisor, says: “Data on the durability of batteries is very scant and no-one has ever collected this type of info on a journey of this scale.”
Speaking about the team’s success, Nigel Brandon says: “It is very exciting to see what a motivated and talented team of Imperial’s young engineers can achieve – both the team and the programme are fabulous ambassadors for Imperial and its students.”
— Emily Ross, Communications and Development
For films, videos and to read a blog of the journey visit: http://racinggreenendurance.com