Driven To Succeed: Race Day Has Finally Arrived

May 9, 2019

The team with their car on the race track.

The go-cart track at the Utah Motorsports Campus in Erda is a winding loop of asphalt almost a mile long. It is surrounded by the rest of the campus: several large warehouses storing race cars, mechanical equipment of various types and concession counters offering cold drinks, but mostly… asphalt.  

By 9:00 in the morning all of the students participating in the event have arrived.  They are huddled near temporary awnings waiting for their races to begin.  The sun is coming out.  It’s going to be a beautiful day and the kids are excited.

They’re here for the annual Greenpower Utah race.  Each team has one car, which they’ve modified to make as efficient as possible. In their final heat, they’ll have 90 minutes to race around the track.  The team that makes the most laps in the timeframe wins.  Go too fast and they may not have enough power in their batteries to last the whole race.  Go too slow and they won’t make enough laps to win.

Out in the middle of the track, one awning stands apart.  Under it is a table covered in complex-looking equipment, next to it are three large solar panels.  This is the control center for the college-aged team - the team that will be demonstrating their solar powered, wirelessly charging the vehicle.   

“The point of this is green power," said Heidi Daniel, a freshmen at Utah State University working on the car. "Well, right now our electricity, at least in a place like Utah, isn’t really green.  It isn’t coming from renewable resources.  But as soon as we can get energy which is cleaner, which is coming from more renewable resources, then I think stuff like this becomes extremely viable.  Even though we’re not to that point yet I think it’s still good to look into this technology because I think we will get to that point, and we would want to be able to use that green electricity if it were to become available.”

The team is composed of seven college freshman and their mentors.  The freshman comes from high schools that participated in GEAR UP, a federal program that is designed to help students prepare for college.

Misael Nava appreciated the support he got from the program.

“A lot of it had to do with just, preparation and getting to experience what to expect in college," Nava said. "So GEAR UP funded a lot of trips to colleges or college fairs throughout the school year and to talk to representatives. I guess that really helped a lot in making decisions later on.”

These students made it, and this is their last year with GEAR UP.  Once they finish their freshman year, they are likely to complete the next three years of college and graduate.

In front of the awning is a long narrow pad laid out on the track.  This is where the magic happens. Inside the pad are charging coils that emit an electromagnetic field.  When the car drives over the pad, energy is transferred to a coil in the car. 

There is a period in the morning of nervous business.  Each team has to have their car weighed and inspected, to ensure that it meets the safety requirements.  There is also a 30-minute qualifying round before the final race.  Members of the college team spend this time making last-minute adjustments to their equipment.

Whitney DeSpain spends this time working on the app that tracks the sensors on the car.  It’s all a little harrowing, but it works out in the end.

“Some of the guys stayed up till five in the morning that morning," she said. "They stayed up all night just trying to get this working.  So, that it actually worked was cool.  On my part, it was a little frustrating because I wasn’t actually able to test it until they got that charging part working and they didn’t get that charging part working until literally the day of.  So I was at the race track trying to make updates.”

Finally.  The moment arrives. 

On your mark, get set, race!

The college students can’t place in the race - their car is technically disqualified because of it’s charging system, but that doesn’t stop the team from feeling competitive.

“Alright, who brought their, uh, spike strip thing... [laughter].”

That’s a joke, of course, made by Abhilash Kamineni, a graduate student at Utah State University who works with the Sustainable Electrified Transportation Center, or SELECT.

Once the race begins, the team monitors their speed and charge using sensors mounted on the car and an online app that tracks their progress.

The team, including John Mirmigas, is excited to track their progress.

“I wish the track was shorter, I want to see them go over the pad like a million more times.”

Whitney explains what their data shows about the charging system.

“So the pad only gives enough charge to not have the charge go down. So when you were looking at the data it would be going down, and then it would go over the pad and it would just be straight for a little bit. Then it would go down, and straight and down. To have it going continuously, really we would just have to have more pad, like all around the track.”

As the race progresses, all of the cars begin to slow, though some more quickly than others.  Eventually, cars begin to stop, and teams push them off the track.  The wireless charging car hangs in there for most of the race, but eventually, it dies too.

After the race is finished, the college team gives a short demonstration of how their car works.  Middle school and high school students crowd around them to see the car.

“Hey, can everyone hear clear in the back? Is there anyone that can’t hear?...”

Ryan Bohm is the senior laboratory engineer at SELECT.  He has been guiding the team since they started the project.

“Alright, hello everyone. My name’s Ryan and I’m with Utah State University and the power and electronics laboratory. We are demonstrating wireless charging of electric vehicles.”

Together the team gives a short explanation of the car and the pad.  They flip the car over to show the kids the wire coil underneath.  After the demonstration, Ryan asks for questions.  This is when the demonstration gets really interesting.  The kids put the screws to the team, asking questions about the function, safety and commercial viability of the new technology,

“Is it alternating current or direct current?”

“Wouldn’t it make sense to go from solar panel to car instead of transmitting it through different sources and losing power that way?”

“If you’re constantly having those magnetic waves pumped into people and devices, won’t that end up affecting the internal workings of the car potentially, like a phone, and people?”

The kids asked technical and practical questions about the new technology one right after the other.

“So let’s say you actually do get this on a highway, and you don’t want cars ruining the pad.  Can you put something over it and still have the magnetic field come up?”

“Would it be interchangeable?  For example, like, if you had two Teslas drive over the same pad would they both pick up the same energy?  And if another car company started making an electric car would it all be interchangeable or would it be like the same frequency or is there some other catch?”

Ryan seems genuinely surprised and delighted. 

“Wow, you guys all need to come work for use at Utah State... [laughter].”

The technology is new and so, of course, there are still a lot of things to work out before it can be applied for mainstream transportation.  However, the team is hopeful about its potential.  John and his teammate Taylor Olpin have given a lot of thought to where they are with the technology now, and where they’re going.

"I think the purpose of the car is a proof of concept to kind of show all the people at the event and whoever sees the race, I guess," John said, "that like inductive charging, which is the whole wireless charging for the car, is practical, it’s cool, and yeah wireless charging for vehicles is in it’s infancy, so…”

“The eventual hope is that we could build this type of infrastructure into roads," Taylor said, "like highways or whatever, so that as you’re driving your electric cars around you don’t need to stop to recharge your car.”

“I could see it being done as part of an annual overhaul of the road systems and, you know, maintenance if we can actually prove that it works. Then I think that people will really start to take a look at this.”

As for the other teams, the teams made of middle school and high school students, well they are just having a really fun day.  The team from Edith Bowen are only too happy to tell me about their race-strategy and experience,

“It was good!  Painful too.  I feel like my arms are going to fall off. It was so fun cheering for them and like seeing them as they passed all the dying cars, it was so cool.  We used the insulation to keep it so it got warm.  We had smaller and lighter people, cuz they’re all middle schoolers.  Like Me!”

Gunnison Valley Middle School is also well represented: “It was awesome!  I’m actually the first driver.”

It has been a great day at the race track.  Kids and young adults working together to use science to solve tough problems.  Chase Miller, one of the GEAR UP freshmen, summarized the spirit of the event beautifully...

“Even if it seems like challenging or scary at first, just take the first step and just get involved and you might find out you love it.  Even though it’s hard you might overcome the challenges just because you like it that much, just do what you’re passionate about."  

Driven To Succeed programming is brought to you by our members, USU STARS! GEAR UPand Rocky Mountain Power. Supporting student innovation and clean transportation solutions in Utah. Details at rockmountainpower.net