Manufacturing

Vehicle Design for the World

13 Jul, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

MIT program strives for incredible MPG rates, increased social responsibility


It’s just about rollout time for SolidWorks 2007, so the company invited industry press for a preview. As usual, SolidWorks hosted an insightful and worthwhile event. Above and beyond the product previews and discussions about the company’s business direction, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with a group of very interesting and motivated students involved with the MIT VDS (Vehicle Design Summit).

This summer at MIT, from June 13 to August 13, student engineering teams from more than 30 universities are attempting to design better alternative transportation technologies to jumpstart state-of-the-art transportation options and dispel preconceived notions on how to engineer these vehicles. Worldwide, with 6.5 billion potential drivers, the need for efficient personal transportation continues to grow at an astonishing rate. In a serious effort to revolutionize the design process for alternative transportation technology, 60 engineers representing 15 countries are participating in the summit. SolidWorks cosponsors MIT's global solar car initiative and is the 3D CAD sponsor of the nine-week Vehicle Design Summit, donating licenses of SolidWorks Education Edition.

Ten teams of six or seven participants each are working on several vehicle designs. The participants were chosen based on previous experience with vehicles, particularly in the World Solar Challenge, American Solar Challenge, Formula SAE, SAE MiniBaja and Human Powered Vehicle competitions. This intensive program will provide the foundation for ongoing multidisciplinary transportation research (engineering, mathematics, science and human behavior) to develop commuter vehicle designs based on biofuels, solar power, human power and other technologies.

Students Offer Answers

One of the most compelling aspects of this project is the fact that the students are the catalysts for bringing the designs to life. The project is codirected by MIT students Robyn Allen and Anna Jaffe and is partnered with Neil Gershenfeld, who heads up MIT’s fab lab. The group ultimately hopes to produce location-specific vehicle designs that can be built at simple, yet comprehensive fabrication facilities worldwide.

“This project is a reaction to the fact that over two decades, entrants in the World Solar Challenge have by default converged on a single winning design, the execution of which determines the winner,” said Jaffe, an MIT sophomore and event organizer. “The idea behind the Vehicle Design Summit is to channel energies in a direction that might directly benefit the world more than pure racing does. Our designs will reflect practical concerns like driving unsupported on real roads at viable speeds in countries with limited financial resources. We want to design better products that are drivable, parkable, economical and sustainable. At the same time, as a student-led research initiative, we have the design freedom to investigate technologies many would deem too risky to pursue in a commercial setting.”

VDS is an offshoot of the World Solar Challenge, a biennial 3,000-kilometer solar car race across Australia sponsored by universities and corporations. Unlike the race, the summit focuses on collaboration, not competition, and on affordable, practical technologies that don't require support vehicles to operate.

At its inception, many hoped that the World Solar Challenge would result in vehicles that could be mass-produced for consumer use, enabling commuters to drive to work on the power of the sun. Instead of inspiring true innovation, the World Solar Challenge has produced 30-plus solar electric vehicle designs that are virtually identical and too specialized for commuter use.

The Next Level

The MIT Vehicle Design Summit has three primary goals.

  • Develop 5-10 practical commuter vehicle designs with 500mpg equivalence (or better) based on emerging technologies, in concert with collaborators in industry and academia.
  • Aid in the creation of a project-based, socially conscious engineering curriculum for the 2006-2007 academic year.
  • Set the stage for a permanent international consortium focused on green transportation for India, China and other countries with rapidly expanding transportation needs and infrastructures.

Partnering with industry and academia to engage the highest-caliber speakers and mentors throughout the summer, VDS teams are poised to have an impact not only on the field of solar racing but on the larger energy debate, as well. In addition to publishing a technical manual at the conclusion of the summit, the participants are committed to distributing all their findings as Open Source, so anyone curious about these technologies can access and expand on the initial ideas.

In addition to spawning high-impact designs, VDS will offer participants real-world experience, working in groups on projects they likely wouldn't see in traditional engineering education environments. These students have the opportunity to be truly innovative and not be obligated to any shareholders or limited by any proprietary agreements -- they can be driven by their passion to contribute tangible products for alternative transportation.

Keep Watching

I’m jazzed about this event, especially after meeting some of the participants and observing their intelligence and enthusiasm. Although this project is not a competition, per se, all participating teams (and the world) will win in the end. Tune in later this year for more on this exciting event.


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