UIC students race the school’s first electric car
UIC students from the organization Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) made school history by racing an electric Baja car during the recent Backwoods Baja 2023 hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
“We made history at the Backwoods 2023 competition by successfully building and competing with our school’s first electric vehicle,” said Jonathan Simon, captain of the SAE @ UIC Formula Electric team and a mechanical engineering student. “We think we achieved some world-firsts in the process with the first completed eBaja in North America, the first eBaja in the world with a high-voltage powertrain, and the first eBaja in the world with an FSAE Electric rules-compliant powertrain.”
In addition to Simon, the active team members include mechanical engineering students German Moreno, Sebastian Pantoja, Madeleine Pena, Oswaldo Jimenez, Vincent Reynolds, Nick Whitney, Allan Fuentes, Aleks Dyulgerov, Jida Sulieman, Krish Yadav, Elijah Wilkinson, Rakshitvashista Gentyala, and Selena Ho, electrical and computer engineering students include Ephren Manning, Daniel Cruz, Sandeep Bijoy, Gabriel Rusecki, Declan Hurless, Adrian Velazquez, and Shaurya Iyer, and computer science student Radison Akerman.
The Formula E team was established in 2018 with plans to build an electric formula car. However, the team had many setbacks as members graduated and COVID halted group work projects. While the team focused on research, the idea of building a car from scratch seemed daunting. In January 2023, the team decided to shift gears and took the advice of an alumnus who suggested converting a retired SAE @ UIC Baja car to electric.
“At first, it felt like a major departure since my goal was a racecar, but it made sense the more I thought about it,” Simon said. “The team could focus on developing the electrical systems, save on costs and time by starting with an existing car, and there were members who worked with it previously. Most importantly, it gave the team direction.”
While the car change provided some breathing room, the team still had a lot to learn and complete in a short amount of time as the spring 2023 semester ended, and work continued through the summer.
“The biggest challenge for the team was understanding the FSAE Electric rules, which adds a complex electrical ruleset on top of the already intense mechanical rules,” Simon said.
Determined, to make it to the competition, the team worked tirelessly to get the car built and compliant for the race. They succeeded in assembling the core systems and diagnosing many first-time issues.
“Just before leaving for comp, an accidental short of the low-voltage battery left the car unable to start. But the team had run out of time for fixes, and it was time to leave for competition,” Simon said.
In Wisconsin, the team worked diligently in the hotel parking lot troubleshooting problems and making repairs. The work continued race day, and shortly before the track closed, UIC brought its car to the starting line.
The eBaja only had to finish about 30% of a full lap. It started strong, but halfway through the lap, its power output dropped, and Simon knew it might not finish. It managed to make it to the final section of the track where it had to drive over three sets of wood logs.
After getting stuck on the third set, a field marshal gave it a push and a clear path to the finish line. Unfortunately, the battery depleted. As a final team effort, the students pushed the car across the finish line.
“It’s pretty fitting that I started this project alone and emerged with an entire team to help me,” Simon said. “Likewise, I embarked on this lap myself, and ended with my team crossing the finish line beside me”
While the car failed to finish a partial lap, the UIC students see this a major win since the eBaja is a prototype. Future team members can use it to learn before they take on the process of building an electric formula racecar.
“While the eBaja isn’t fully rules-compliant yet, it’s given us a remarkable foundation upon which future teams will build. We had to crawl before we could walk, and now it’s that much easier to run,” Simon said. “It’s surreal that the goal which seemed totally unattainable before is actually within reach now.”