I’ve written in the past of how the push for more efficient, “greener” designs are driving innovation in important industries like auto, aerospace, and power.  Over the past few years, we’ve met countless engineers around the world who are working hard to transform conventional designs to highly refined optimal designs in tune with modern realities, and some are, of course, throwing out old ideas all together and venturing into exotic power sources and radical platforms that used to be the stuff of science fiction. Last week I had one of the more interesting and enjoyable encounters with such a group of very talented green engineers.

No, these green pioneers were not from some famous auto company in Japan or Germany and they did not have huge facilities and labs with expensive instruments and server clusters. They were student groups from the University of Waterloo designing, testing, and building, full-sized, human-carrying automotives powered by some of the most exotic automotive power plants available today. These vehicles then compete against their counterparts from the top engineering universities as well as private companies in international races and competition. It is this competitive aspect that drew me to meeting them. In the past, Maplesoft has had intermittent relationships with such student competitions. Although we regularly offer sponsorship dollars and moral support, we rarely engage directly with the activity itself. I thought it was high time we changed that.

The thought was that if they could be outfitted with the latest advancements in simulation tools and techniques, it would give these student teams a real competitive advantage. And as a three time University of Waterloo graduate, I was very motivated to offer this edge to my alma mater.

One of the teams I visited carried the name Midnight Sun a reference to the city’s northerly position on the globe and its solar-powered ambitions. The Midnight Sun competes in various races including the Global Solar Challenge and the American Solar Challenge. You’ve probably seen pictures of cars like the Midnight Sun. They are large, flat, futuristic vehicles covered with solar panels whose array is interrupted by a central “bump” where the driver peeks out. After some analysis with the team, we determined that the right type of physical model for the basic electrical system and the vehicle dynamics would provide them with a predictive platform for the race strategy. For example, they could run the simulation using different weather conditions (amount of solar input), road conditions (load on batteries), and throttle input. They could determine a nominal strategy (i.e. should they be going fast or cruising at lower speed for given likely conditions) prior to the race and then during the race the same tool could be used to tweak their strategy.

Chasing the sun


The Midnight Sun solar car in a typical Canadian neighborhood

 The second team carries the less poetic name of Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (WAFT) and they compete in the GM and US Department of Energy (DOE) – sponsored EcoCar competition. Their vehicle is less futuristic than the Midnight Sun. In fact, it looks like a regular GM SUV. That’s because the goal of this competition is to develop engineering solutions to the emissions challenge that are actually feasible and practical in the real world.  The teams goal is to analyze various new age powerplant options including EV, HEV, biodiesel, hydrogen, and more, then engineer a prototype that proves the vehicle’s feasibility in the real world.  In other words, “build the next generation car”. In the competition’s own words:

“The competition challenges 17 universities across North America to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles by minimizing the vehicle’s fuel consumption and reducing its emissions while retaining the vehicle’s performance, safety and consumer appeal. Students use a real-world engineering process to design and integrate their advanced technology solutions into a GM-donated vehicle.”

What we saw during our visit astounded me. Tucked away in a little used engineering lab wing was a shiny new GM vehicle with its shiny new body panels and luxurious seats removed and strewn about the floor. In the corner was a next-generation GM engine running an exotic fuel. Unfortunately, because the teams are provided with latest GM technology including some confidential things, I was not able to get too close to it. In a crate was the latest shipment from dSpace – a complete realtime simulation system that they were going to use for HIL testing. This was the real deal.

We chatted a bit about their goals and challenges. The team members were pretty confident in their technical instincts and conventional engineering abilities but we're provided with tools intended mainly for power train configuration and selection not optimization. One of the students commented: "We really need to improve our models for transients not just steady state conditions - after all the loads in vehicles are constantly changing depending on the driver. Doing this will let us squeeze the most out of every litre of fuel." What they really wanted was a proper physical model with sufficient fidelity for real HIL so that they didn’t have to rely on their instincts. Problem was, none of their regular advisors and mentors were familiar enough with newer modeling techniques to guide them.

That’s when the chorus of angels appeared and the sweet phrases of Handel’s Messiah began flowing through the wind tunnel lab. “Halelujah!” we thought. We can really help this team. We can empower them with the perfect way to develop their plant models and give them a real edge. Secretly, the Maplesoft engineers were also thrilled by the fact that they could be directly involved with an advanced powertrain modeling initiative with some of the most passionate, energetic, and bright engineering minds around, who also have access to the latest in automotive design technology. Comparable access with a real company would take months of paperwork for the security clearance if you can get in at all! This seemed to be a dream come true for all concerned. The business guy in me also likes the fact that the plant models that the team will build will be validated in a commercial-grade context, tested in the heat of competition, and then presented to GM’s senior management as an important factor in the car’s success.

Our relationship with these two ambitious groups is just starting and I’m thrilled that these partnerships will provide a win situation for all. The teams get the guidance and mentorship and expertise to give them a real competitive advantage, we get the satisfaction of seeing our hard work enrich the lives of these bright students. Overall, the auto industry, I believe will get yet one more example of just how much potential there is in our fresh approach to plant modeling.

Some links:

EcoCar Challenge website

World Solar Challenge

American Solar Challenge

Midnight Sun solar team

Waterloo Alternative Fuels Team (WAFT)

Maplesoft tools used in the Challenge X completion (the predecessor to the EcoCar challenge) 

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