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NIU team takes third at “Supermileage” challenge

June 17, 2010

A team of four Northern Illinois University engineering students designed and built a vehicle that took third place overall at the Society of Automotive Engineers International Supermileage Competition, squeezing 1,265 miles from a single gallon of gasoline.

The competition, held June 10-11 in Marshall, Mich., featured more than 30 teams from across North America and from as far away as India and the United Arab Emirates. The NIU car was the top placing vehicle among U.S. universities.

The vehicle was designed and built by Joe Monteleone, of St. Charles; Austin Ray, of Gurnee; and Charlie  Ruetsche and Patrick Galloway, both of Palatine. All four graduated this May with degrees in engineering technology from the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. The vehicle, which served as the required senior design project for the students, was piloted by Sachi Moy, an NIU accountancy major, from Inverness.

“This was a very bright, dedicated group of guys, all of whom have some experience working with cars – but all of it on the other end of the spectrum – high performance, low mileage,” said Professor David Schroeder, who advised the group. “They put in an extraordinary amount of work and it paid off.”

The team overcame significant odds to place so highly in the competition.

For starters, this was the team’s first attempt at creating an ultra-high-mileage vehicle and they were competing against teams that have been tinkering with successful cars for years. Other teams had 20 or more members, and rumor had it that at least one had sunk $30,000 this year into improving its electrical system alone. By comparison, the NIU team was comprised of only five individuals (including the driver) and built its car for slightly less than $7,000.

The bare-bones budget forced the team to evaluate every choice carefully, and dictated a dedication to simplicity that ultimately served the team well, said Schroeder. It also compelled them to do nearly all of the work themselves.

The NIU students crafted the entire car by hand, except for the standard-issue engine given to all teams, and even that was heavily modified. The process tested all of the skills that they learned while earning their degrees – from computer-aided design and welding, to fabrication of everything, including the frame, drive train, steering mechanism, wheels and brakes.

“We built the vehicle from the ground up,” said Galloway. “We had to use all of the tools, the formulas and the software that we learned over the last four years. We ran into a lot of problems, but we took what we learned and worked through them.”

Their greatest and most time-intensive challenge, however, was something they never covered in any class: creating the carbon-fiber shell of the vehicle. In the end, the shell was not ready to be attached to the frame of the car until the wee hours of the night before the competition. The enhanced aerodynamics proved worth the effort as the reduced drag helped to nearly double the vehicle’s previous best mileage.

The shell did have one unforeseen drawback: The carbon-fiber composition of the body blocked cell phone signals. So, while other teams were in constant radio contact with their drivers, the NIU team relied upon rudimentary hand signals to help the driver stay as close as possible to the required minimum speed of 15 mph. On their best run of the day, the team came within 9 seconds of an optimal time.

For a while, it appeared that the NIU team’s 1,265 miles per gallon might hold up as the winner, but defending champ Universite’ Laval, from Quebec, made a late run and posted mileage of 2,340 – nearly double its previous best run of the day. A second Canadian team bested them a short time later, but those setbacks did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the team.

“The odds were completely against us because we were going up against teams that have been around for a while, and we got third place. We couldn’t be happier. It was definitely a great experience,” said Galloway

“Seeing our students excel in a competition like this is exciting, because it is an affirmation of the value of the type of hands-on learning that we emphasize,” said Promod Vohra, dean of CEET. “The college tries to be responsive to the demands of the nation and world, and energy efficiency is one of our greatest needs. The performance of our Supermileage team gives me great confidence that our students will be among the leaders in addressing this and other critical issues.  Engineers are catalysts for Innovation and our students fit that role well.”

A slideshow of photos is available online.