A collection of RPI newcomers gathered on the morning of Wednesday, August 21 inside the Ricketts Building, preparing to build an electric car. This activity was a choice offered by the Institute during Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond, a week-long event focusing on welcoming freshmen to the campus.
Leading the program were members of Rensselaer’s Electric Vehicle team, including project manager Vinh Nguyen ’14. Each year, the team competes in the Shell Eco-Marathon with the electric cars it builds throughout the year. These cars are much smaller than the average car seen zipping along the streets. At a few yards long and a few feet tall, they’re barely larger than a go-cart. Furthermore, these cars only run on three wheels instead of the usual four. This is not a problem for stability, rather, a simple change in aesthetics. In the competition, each team runs its car for ten miles, and the team that uses the lowest amount of energy wins. Future car producers can learn from this great shift of priorities.
To start the day, the leaders of the team broke up the twenty or so participants into smaller groups to discuss the four components of the electric vehicle’s design. These components included the electronic configuration; the car’s steering system, which doesn’t necessarily involve the wheel; the body; and the chassis, which consists of the frame underneath the body. Participants formulated these parts or systems in a hypothetical manner on eraser boards and chalk boards in order to further understand the making of the car itself and to get their analytical skills in rhythm. The group leader could ask the students how many volts they wanted in their car battery, motor, etc. Using that information, the group leader would explain how the parts worked together in the system and whether or not the one the students created would work.
In the afternoon, the freshmen came in from lunch to find a previously made Rensselaer Electric Vehicle—in pieces. It turns out the students of the program weren’t going to build a completely new car in one day; that would be impossible for people with their level of experience, however well-versed on the subject many had proven themselves to be. Instead, they were going to be piecing together a disassembled electric vehicle from REV’s previous year.
Throughout the afternoon, the students and their mentors worked on putting the car back together, section by section. Every nut and bolt that the average car consumer couldn’t even begin to fathom was carefully put into place. The frame and body were painstakingly pieced back together. The steering was then reinstalled into the car. Finally, with the electronic capabilities of the car reconfigured, the car was finished.
The next morning, the students were able to watch their car move along one of the streets near Ricketts—it was a surreal feeling for them when they thought about the all various pieces that were in front of them the day before.