Baja 1000 EV dreams lead Colorado engineering students to build racer in Aurora driveway garage


AURORA — Engineering students at the Colorado School of Mines are embarking on what they see as the ultimate, relevant senior project: creating an electric vehicle tough enough to handle the Baja 1000 off-road race through the unforgiving Mexican desert.

They want to accelerate the move away from fossil fuels in the United States as global warming intensifies.

“We are going to solve a problem” by improving electric vehicles as alternatives to gasoline cars, said Titus Reed, 23, whose role on the 14-member CSM team includes driving.

No electric vehicle has completed the Baja 1000, one of the toughest off-road races in the world, renowned as a proving ground for new vehicles – and also for shattering dreams. Beyond whale-sized rock bumps and loamy bogs, there’s no rest but pit stops, and Baja locals sometimes set traps that can turn wonder racers from $250,000 in wreckage.

The Colorado students are exploring a fundamental innovation: rather than waiting hours to recharge the battery – a main reason why electric vehicle owners consume so much latte – they will pioneer an exchange system using interchangeable batteries to minimize delays.

Over the past few months, they’ve relied on email solicitations and cold calls to raise $50,000 and made useful motorsport connections with racing veterans at Fox Factory, which designs cars. suspension components, and innovators at Panasonic, which is expanding its EV battery operations. The money is still less than they will need, and last week students were worried about whether they would manage to finish, let alone win, the race in November.

But in a gravel driveway in front of barking dogs in a borrowed Aurora garage, they dedicate themselves to the challenge this summer. They started by gutting a red 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee, to serve as a “skin” around the heavy suspension, including chrome-molybdenum steel axles and a frame to support a box of batteries the size of a family refrigerator. They envision a 7,000-pound machine capable of navigating four-foot bumps while maintaining an average speed of 80 miles per hour between multiple pit stops.

They juggle between this work and other tasks. For example, Reed must take summer courses in thermodynamics, circuitry, and robot ethics.

The team includes six aspiring electrical engineers.

“A lot of us really believe in electric vehicles and what they hold for the future,” said team leader Robert Schmidt, 30, a South African-born senior who grew up in Chicago and started his college education at a community college until he qualified for scholarships. to finance his studies at the Colorado School of Mines, the most expensive public university in the state, located in Golden.

“If we were to complete the Baja 1000, we would get data on the parts we use and we could provide it to Tesla. It could really help them,” Schmidt said.

“Driving on some of the toughest terrain in the world is something they can’t do. We would be able to provide that. What if Americans do indeed switch from gas-powered to battery-powered transportation,” he said, “we can look back 15 years from now and say ‘we were part of it'”.

Mechanic Brian Webster, owner of the garage, helps guide the work.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Brian Webster, left, and Robert Schmidt, a Colorado School of Mines student, May 17 in Aurora, work on a project to convert a jeep into an electric vehicle to compete in the Baja 1000 road race through an unforgiving desert. Webster, a mechanic, lets the students use his garage to build the project.

Colorado School of Mines seniors embark each year on projects designed to apply their engineering skills. The university supports each team with $2,500. Students are graded on the extent to which they build something unique and necessary.

“I was amazed,” said Max Billington, head of the RMH electrical engineering group, an adjunct professor at the Colorado School of Mines, who had taught several students. He hailed their local efforts to do “what needs to be done” as a visionary.

“They see this as their future world, that the world has to go this way, that fossil fuel vehicles are not the future of humanity,” Billington said.

Still, that’s a long shot.

“It’s really hard to design a gas-powered vehicle to complement the Baja 1000. And those students had no money,” he said.

The backdrop is “growing frustration” despite a societal “urgent need” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, said Billington, who works on large-scale military, educational and corporate projects where installing charging stations charging for electric vehicles is becoming the norm.

State and federal governments promoted networks of charging stations where drivers would wait several hours to recharge depleted batteries. Meanwhile, prices for electric vehicles that rival gas-powered favorites for performance remain higher than the majority of American consumers can afford — even with tax incentives — due to the cost of batteries.

“We have the fundamental problem of America’s population living dispersed, needing vehicles that can go 200 to 300 miles on a charge. And the technology is not there yet. But a switchable battery? That’s probably a path we’re headed down,” he said.

The administrators of the Colorado School of Mines assigned Billington to serve as a technical advisor for the students. He visited their back alley work space, believing that after the wheels and suspension are installed, the vehicle will need to move to a larger garage. It emphasizes safety in how students will remove depleted batteries and connect fully charged replacement batteries in harsh desert conditions.

“If we Americans are going to use vehicles to cross our continent, we need to have a way – similar to what we have now – to pull a vehicle into a gas station and fill it up and you’re on your way. “, Billington said. “A battery assembly that can be taken out of a car where a new, fully charged assembly can be inserted” has potential, especially if companies can agree on standardized batteries and connectors, he said. “The idea would be that the depleted battery removed from a vehicle would go, not in a bin, but on a rack where it would be recharged by a Texaco.”

But the real costs plague students. The batteries alone will likely require upwards of $60,000.

The axles ordered from the East Coast did not arrive.

And the students want to be ready for test drives by Oct. 1 — possibly inside the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Schmidt said.

“It’s public land, isn’t it?” »

The Baja 1000 debuted in 1967. It’s garnering global attention with racing teams from dozens of countries competing and automakers keeping a close eye on innovations and ideas to inform the design of the next greatest vehicles.

“Electric is on the way” and if an electric vehicle could complement the Baja 1000 “we would put it on the map,” said Jim Ryan, Baja 1000 marketing manager of SCORE (Southern California Off-road Racing Enthusiasts), who organizes the event.

A few EV teams came in, Ryan said. A group in 2018 completed the shorter Baja 500 race – but not within the 20 hour time limit.

The time cap for the Baja 1000 should be 52 hours.

EV competitors have included teams with extensive experience, Ryan said. “Others didn’t do their homework and calculated their battery longevity based on cobbled streets and as soon as they hit the silt beds they burned.”

Recharging batteries using generators and replacing depleted batteries on the fly during pit stops set up on fragile desert terrain prone to erosion and ecologically ruinous fragmentation will also require careful environmental planning.

“It’s a lot to bite at once,” he said. “But everyone has their goals.”

Students said they hoped to get at least an A.

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