Society of Automotive Engineers preps race car

Next month, Carnegie Mellon’s Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) will compete in the Formula SAE, a premier international car racing event where teams compete with kart-style autos to claim the title of the best-engineered machine.

SAE is an international organization comprising of students and professionals seeking to advance mobility technology and engineering. The society sponsors many international collaborations and symposiums, including the always-popular motorsports competitions.

Carnegie Mellon’s SAE team — the oldest organization on campus not overseen by Student Activities — has members from many majors, although most are mechanical engineers. Currently, they are constructing the fifth car in their history, which is based on a Honda CBR600 motorcycle engine. Almost every part on the formula car is custom-fabricated and machined in their shop in the East Campus Garage basement.

For its 2006 vehicle, the team has incorporated many adjustments to its design from last year. For one, it focused on drastically reducing the weight of the car to improve acceleration performance, which is vital in the competition — hundredths of a second separate winning and losing. The team decided to use more carbon fiber, an ultra-lightweight and strong composite material, on as many parts as possible, resulting in a 40-pound drop. Suspension and handling were issues that the team also addressed on the new car, where independent suspensions sit at all four corners to improve response and feel for the driver. The car’s power output is estimated to be about 80 horsepower and, with a total curb weight of roughly 500 pounds, is enough to launch the racer from 0 to 60 in just over three seconds.

“Even driving slow in this thing is like nothing else,” noted senior mechanical engineering student Mike Miles. “It’s so pure and visceral. Until you sit in one and start driving it, you have no idea what it feels like. It’s cool.” The driver sits a couple inches off the ground in the go-kart style formula car.

Team leaders said that ideas and inspiration for Carnegie Mellon’s formula car come from many experiences. Innovative approaches by other teams, real production cars, and general creativity are all part of the formula for creating the SAE car. “If you want to get into automotive racing, this is it,” said junior mechanical engineering major Billy Burkey. A constant flow of ideas from team members results in constant changes and improvements to the design.

The painstaking manipulation of parts and system mechanics comes together finally at competition, where cars run through a slew of tests and evaluations, ranging from autocross for best lap times, noise levels,
car presentation, and more. After placing 35th at last year’s competition, the team is looking to progress even further.

SAE unveils the new car to the public at Scaife Hall next Friday at noon. The Formula SAE competition is in Michigan from May 17 to May 21 and involves 140 teams from around the world.