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Penn's electric race car team seeks fourth title in four years

To build a race car that can round corners at high speed, University of Pennsylvania students have come up with a radical redesign.

University of Pennsylvania students sand the frame of their electric race car, which they project will go zero to 60 miles an hour in less than 2.3 seconds.
University of Pennsylvania students sand the frame of their electric race car, which they project will go zero to 60 miles an hour in less than 2.3 seconds.Read moreSYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer

A couple of first-place finishes last year. A second place the year before that. And another first in 2015.

They are the New York Yankees of the collegiate electric race car circuit in North America, dominating competitions with a combination of raw acceleration, handling, and endurance. So what does a team of more than 80 University of Pennsylvania undergraduates do this year?

Scrap the winning design in favor of a bold new approach: four-wheel drive.

Unlike gasoline-powered engines, electric motors can immediately rotate a car's wheels with peak force — a quality that gearheads refer to admiringly as "instant max torque." But some of that extra oomph is wasted if the wheels slip and skid. So instead of using one big motor in this year's car, Penn Electric Racing is installing four smaller ones — one in each wheel — controlled by an onboard computer that delivers varying amounts of power to the wheels as needed.

The goal: a road-hugging rocket that can round the corners at high speed.

"There's definitely an element of uncertainty and an element of risk," said team member Connor Sendel, a junior from the Denver area who is working toward a dual degree from Penn's Wharton and engineering schools. "The whole idea is we keep improving."

When some college students were watching the NCAA men's basketball tournament, sleeping off the previous night's excesses, or perhaps doing homework, this is what a Saturday in mid-March looked like for Sendel and his teammates:

One group huddled over the car's cage-like steel frame, grinding off excess material where the metal tubes are welded together. ("Every ounce counts, especially when you're trying to accelerate as fast as you possibly can," said Connor Fenn, a sophomore from Severna Park, Md,. majoring in mechanical engineering.) Others scrutinized the design of the vehicle's "aero kit" — the winglike contraption that will be attached to the car's rear end.

Javier Peraza, a sophomore from South Philadelphia who went to Science Leadership Academy, meanwhile tested the lithium-ion cells that go into the car's 300-volt battery. Each of the bright-green cylinders is the size of a roll of dimes; the plan is to pack 690 of them together in a honeycomb-like arrangement. In a separate room, two dozen students probed thousands of dollars' worth of custom-designed circuit boards.

Participation is strictly extracurricular. Yet the amount of time involved — well above 40 hours a week during crunch periods — surely exceeds the commitment required for some traditional classes. The financial outlay for the car will run between $80,000 to $100,000, including cash and in-kind donations from equipment makers, but the bulk of the cost comes in the form of unpaid labor, said Johnathan Chen, a junior who is in charge of the vehicle's electrical systems. A dozen team members worked straight through spring break.

"Labor must be in the millions," Chen said. "If you paid us minimum wage."

So why do it? Team members say, "Why not?"

Kate Ballard, a first-year student from Durham, N.C., recalled seeing a previous year's car when she toured Penn's engineering department as a high schooler. It was sitting in a hallway, and she almost tripped over it. She went straight home and incorporated it into her application essay about why she wanted to attend Penn.

"I thought it was one of the coolest things I saw," she said. Her task earlier this month, along with classmate Caroline Leng of Poolesville, Md., was testing tiny circuits that will help to measure the degree of strain on the "push rods" that support each wheel.

Most team members are majoring in some form of engineering, though there is a strong interdisciplinary vibe. Peraza, the battery whiz, is a double-major in English and bioengineering who plans to go to medical school. There are even a few prelaw students.

The car is entered in two competitions in June: the Formula North event in Barrie, Ontario, and the Formula SAE Electric event in Lincoln, Neb. Penn's team came in first place for two of the last three years in Nebraska, and the team also captured the top prize in Ontario last year. In addition to driving performance, teams were judged for design and safety, as detailed in a dense, 175-page rule book.

And in Nebraska, the team's car even matched up well with vehicles in the gas-powered division in a realm that had traditionally been their selling point: endurance. Penn's sleek black roadster easily hung with its gas counterparts over the twisty, 14-mile course. It was almost as if the Yankees suddenly decided that, in addition to achieving perennial success at baseball, they also wanted to do well at cricket.

"We're trying to prove that electric is not only just as good as gas, but better than gas," said Fenn, the sophomore from Maryland. "This is the technology of the future."

These electric cars are quite different from the Chevrolet Volts and other consumer models that, for now, claim a small fraction of the U.S. market. The race cars accommodate just one person, and they are open-wheel racers — scaled-down versions of the speedsters on the professional Formula One and Indy circuits.

Though limited to about 100 horsepower, the cars are quick because of their light weight. Penn's car is expected to weigh just 450 pounds, and the students estimate it will accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 2.3 seconds. That would put it in the ballpark of one of Tesla's high-end models, and the four-wheel drive should prevent slippage.

"It's going to go as soon as you floor it," Peraza predicted.

But a lot of unpaid labor remains between now and June. The Yankees of the electric-car world have a reputation on the line.