The Driving Force

After winning a Tesla sponsorship, Columbia’s Formula Racing club speeds toward the future of sustainable transportation

Jun 24 2022 | By Kyle Barr
Students work on electric race car

The Columbia University Formula Racing team works on building an electric race car

Late one Wednesday night, deep in the winding basement of Columbia Engineering, a troupe of young engineers was hard at work crafting the future of transportation.

Saul Partida BS’22 huddled over a counter tinkering with a circuit board. As the low voltage chief for the Columbia University Formula Racing (FSAE) Team, a constant stream of data points ran through his mind while he calibrated sensitive circuits and monitored the voltage across fragile components. Partida and the FSAE team are engaged in a unique endeavor at Columbia: building the first-ever, student-designed electric race car at the University, designing and constructing everything from the chassis to the carbon fiber body to the drivetrain itself.

“The simplest way to say it is that they are designing a formula racing car without a tailpipe,” said Matthias Preindl, a club faculty advisor and an associate professor of electrical engineering whose lab focuses on power electronic systems. “Race cars are all about power, speed, and endurance—to accomplish that without the energy density of petrol puts engineering skills to the ultimate test, and from an educational standpoint, that’s a terrific experience in and of itself. But more broadly speaking, that means they are getting practical experience designing the next generation of sustainable transportation."

Tesla Sponsorship Powers up

While FSAE has sponsored an annual racing event since 1980, it wasn’t until 2010 that SAE International introduced their fully electric vehicle competition. Three years ago, the Columbia team made a decision to go electric, in order to remain at the forefront of innovation. Since then, the current team has built on the efforts of past members, who never got to put their vehicle on the track due to the pandemic. This month, the club attended their first FSAE Electric event, an opportunity to put their EV design into competition against peer schools from across the country.

In at least one way, they are already winners. Last year, the club submitted a proposal for a Tesla Formula Battery Sponsorship, and in February received word that they were selected to receive pre-built battery modules.

In addition to saving the group significant time and money, the sponsorship is also serious validation of their talent. Josh Browne, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and club adviser, said it’s an example of the connections Columbia engineers are building with an industry that’s undergoing a massive transition. Tesla awarded the sponsorship based on the group’s innovative battery pack design, in other words, how they integrated the battery cells into the vehicle and in particular the team-designed battery management electronics. "Electrification of the transportation sector, and specifically the automotive industry, will play a key role in mitigating the worst effects of climate change,” Browne said. “The experience students get in the FSAE EV program directly translates to career paths in vehicle engineering.”

Paving the way for more EVs

New electric vehicles are hitting the showroom floor every year, and with gas prices rising precipitously, more people are eyeing EV owners with envy.

A 2021 Bloomberg report predicted that two-thirds of all cars in circulation will be electric by 2040. But there are technical hurdles to clear on the road to EV dominance, notes Preindl. As car companies seek to give vehicles an ever-increasing driving range, they are being outfitted with ever bigger and more expensive battery units—meaning current models are still too pricey for many to afford and nearly out of reach for those living in developing countries. At the same time, putting millions more EVs on the road means investing millions of dollars in the public infrastructure necessary to facilitate that. For example, New York City consistently ranks extremely low in accommodations for electric vehicles, even as state officials continue to cite the need to severely reduce emissions by 2035. Pulling off that feat could pay multiple dividends, as two-way charging—in which idle EVs can also feed power back into the national grid—is increasingly being seen as a way to simultaneously take gas guzzlers off the road and also shore up the country’s aging grid.

How do we get to widespread adoption? Young engineers will play a pivotal role, creating mechanisms for both better, cheaper machines, and smarter policy.

Race cars are all about power, speed, and endurance—to accomplish that without the energy density of petrol puts engineering skills to the ultimate test.

Matthias Preindl
FSAE faculty advisor, associate professor of electrical engineering

Build an electric race car from scratch? Go behind the scenes to see Columbia’s Formula Racing club assemble the key components of their racing vehicle.

Safety first

Back in the basement workshop, the club’s president, Sophia Ladyzhets BS’22, and Catherine “Calee” Schmidtberger BS’22, the club’s chief mechanical engineer, stand surrounded by car parts, from v-shaped suspension rods to the braking system to the hub and uprights assembly holding these components and the tires. The team has already run dozens of tests on each system, checking and double checking that all fail safes are in place and functional. The group has even created a full-sized model of the car’s front end to study how well it can withstand heavy impact.

Every aspect of the design process needs to be timed and executed with precision. Ben Felson BS’24, the team’s vice president of technical operations, pulls out an Excel spreadsheet containing a long list containing hundreds upon hundreds of FSAE rules about vehicle systems, subsystems, and subsystems for those subsystems.

“I have these little rules readings on the weekends where we literally go through and read each one, talk about it and what it’s about, then establish who is in charge of knowing it and when we reviewed it,” Felson said. Because the motor, high voltage battery pack, and other integral electrical components sit right behind the driver, “the rules are more high stakes for the EV because parts of the system can be a real danger to the driver if handled incorrectly.”

But the beating heart of any car is the motor, and, in an electric vehicle, that’s where things get particularly interesting. Hovering over the open accumulator, Partida described the internal functions of the car’s powertrain, from the battery pack, the relays and electronics to the motor controller and the electric motors, with surgeon-like detail. The battery pack is a layer cake of power, with each battery segment containing multiple clusters of cells. Members hope that those cells will take their car upwards of speeds of 120 kilometers per hour.

That’s not just about raw power; it’s also about engineering an incredibly effective use of it.

“The efficiency of the motor inverter [the EV component that converts direct current to alternating current] is upwards of 90%,” Schmidtberger said. “So the power efficiency is very high, especially compared to internal combustion cars, where the standard efficiency of an engine is around 35%.”

Indeed, it’s never as simple as taking the bones of a combustion car and swapping in a few electric parts.

“Our first iteration of this prototype used an old chassis, the old bones that were from an old internal combustion car,” Schmidtberger said. “In that case, several of our parts were wonky and ended up having a horrible shape that would have never worked. Our new chassis is designed to be an electric car that can fit the accumulator in the back to maintain a low center of gravity, preserving its handling capabilities.”

Sophia Ladyzhets BS’22 and Catherine “Calee” Schmidtberger BS’22 work on designing an electric car

Sophia Ladyzhets BS’22 and Catherine “Calee” Schmidtberger BS’22 work on designing an electric car

A new generation of car designers

The push toward electric design had the side benefit of attracting a wide range of students, not just the stereotypical motorhead crowd of yesteryear, noted Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jeffrey Kysar, another of the club’s faculty advisors. “The refocus is attracting students not just from mechanical and electrical engineering, but from chemical, civil, and earth and environmental engineering—as well as from other schools and laboratories at Columbia such as the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory,” he said. (Test drives are conducted in the parking lot of Lamont-Doherty, thanks to its director Maureen Raymo.)

“Sustainability is a global problem that attracts everyone,” said Preindl.

Ladyzhets noted there have been several non-engineering students joining the club, such as Elaine Kharbanda ’24, the club’s vice president of business affairs and a linguistics student at Columbia College. At the competition, the team’s inclusivity efforts were recognized by General Motors’ “Everybody In” award, which is presented to the team that best reflected the company’s Everybody In campaign. As part of their prize, GM will cover the group’s registration fees for next year’s competition.

Browne added that the team’s diversity is starting to be reflected within the wider industry, citing GM’s own Mary Barra, who was named CEO in 2014. He also acknowledged Mary Boyce, now provost of the University, who ramped up funding for the club and also completely renovated the FSAE’s workshop back when she was dean of the engineering school. Browne said it was her interest in FSAE that made the transition to EV possible. 

Transitions are much on the minds of club members, as summer marks the end of another academic year. Ladzyzhets is pursuing her integrated master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia, and is planning for an upcoming internship with Tesla. Schmidtberger, on the other hand, wants to follow her childhood dream and build energy-efficient amusement park rides, or also get involved in other sustainable projects.

But most importantly, the legacy they want to leave behind is one of inclusivity, where everyone can feel like they’re building the future together.

“With the electric car, we’ve tried to make it a lot more welcoming—there’s no experience needed—we don’t do interviews, and we’re trying to put a lot more work into our teaching and mentorship,” Ladyzhets said. “We’re all trying to figure out these problems together, and that’s the most important thing.”