University challenge

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While I was at the Shell Eco-marathon in Rotterdam a few months ago, I was impressed by the skill, knowledge and ingenuity of the 200+ teams in attendance, ranging from schoolchildren to university undergraduates. One team had managed to build a single-cylinder engine from scratch, including the actual engine block. Another had built their very own dynamometer into the trolley that’s used to transport their vehicle, so they could test their powertrain wherever they were. And then another group had even designed a portable armored engine test cell to take to the event, which was very impressive.

There are, of course, many similar events around the world, run by many organizations. A good example is the Formula SAE/Student series, a popular contest targeted at university teams that attracts around 4,000 international entrants each year. For many students, involvement in a university race team is not just desirable – it’s necessary in order to get the best graduate jobs, be that automotive or motorsport. Contests like these are a test of a student’s ability to solve a complicated engineering problem as part of a team, and to a fixed deadline – and in these industries, such abilities can be more important than pure academic ability alone.

These competitions can also be highly innovative from a technology point of view. Both the Shell Eco-marathon and Formula SAE/Student series have categories for IC engines fueled by petrol, diesel, synthetic and biofuels, their various hybrid derivatives, and also hydrogen fuel cells and battery electrics. These categories compete head-to-head, which often makes this the only two series in the world where you can compare technologies on a level playing field. It also means that future generations are going to be familiar with (and, therefore, much more flexible when confronted by) new technology. The days of the petrol-head as the dominant species in the automotive industry are numbered, whether you like it or not. Granted, it might take a few decades, but this transition has begun. Say hello to the volt-head, the hybrid-head and the hydrogen-head.

It’s also encouraging to see many familiar names sponsoring these teams, many of whom could not survive without the industry’s support. If you haven’t sponsored a team yet, but have concerns about future recruitment, think of it as investing in the best extended interview in the world – if you’re willing to put the time in to work with the team directly. Or, if you’re developing new technology and want a cheap way to test it, many teams will welcome the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology. For the cost of a prototype, they’ll test it for free (although often to destruction) and provide invaluable data that might otherwise cost a fortune.

We hear a lot about a lack of young talent, so it’s inspiring to see so many events and so many students who are passionate about engineering. This is a problem affecting our whole society and not just the automotive industry, and although we might not be training enough, it seems that there are plenty involved in student race teams, giving us all hope for the future of our industry.

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