Each of the Qualified Teams in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition has a unique story to tell about their technology, how they came together and the struggles that they face as they work to bring their vehicle or technology to market. This is the second feature in our on-going series about each of the competition's Qualified Teams.
If there was one word to describe the Cornell 100+ MPG Team, it would be resourceful. Since joining the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE in 2007, the team has faced an annual transition in management as team leaders graduate from the university. Furthermore, only a small number of the almost 70 students involved with the team have automotive experience. While some might consider these attributes a disadvantage, the Cornell team embraces them as part of their strengths.
Originally founded through Cornell University's Johnson School of Management, the Cornell 100+ MPG Team was the brainchild of a Fellows student by the name of Phillip Bell. Phill, whose focus was leadership and team dynamics, brought the idea to the Engineering College and partnered with Professors John R. Callister and Albert R. George. In the spring of 2007, a small research group was formed that studied different types of hybrid drive trains and compiled a business plan to prove the market viability of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Members included, Phillip Bell, Terence Davidovits, Kyle Rasmussen, and Key Wang.
The full team, led by Terence Davidovits was formed in the fall of 2007 and began with 45 students, over a dozen of which were master’s candidates. Terrence brought together a research base for the team with a focus on developing the plan for competing, researching the competition and other competitors, uncovering readily available technologies, and designing the mule car – a 1992 Geo Metro. Then came the second transition; in the spring of 2008 Terrence graduated from the Masters program and Trey Riddle took the reigns as Overall Team Leader.
Trey's experience and management style allowed the team to move from planning to execution. He was the first team leader with industry experience, as he had done professional welding and ran his own heavy machinery company as an undergraduate. This also meant that Trey was familiar with diesel engines, which had a lasting impact on the final direction of the Cornell vehicle. Under Trey's leadership, the team moved from mule car fabrication to finishing the design and construction of the final car, which they have been undertaking for the past year.
The third and final leadership transition involved Trey handing the reigns to Matt Robison and David Zlotnick in the fall of 2009. "Admittedly, with all of these changes, keeping momentum has been really tough," starts Matt. "Trey's lead into Dave and I taking over was an interesting transition because we are nothing like him. We are the first undergraduates to lead the team. In addition, neither of us has ever done mechanical engineering."
"When I came in, my hands-on experience came from high school science fairs, working on vehicles for pleasure, etc.," Matt continued. "It brought a new aspect to the team and eased the transition. We were at the point where we had a rolling chassis, so our focus became more about the fabrication and operation of the drive train. " Very few of the students on the Cornell 100+ MPG Team have had experience working on vehicles. In fact, the current team has no direct industry experience outside of their advisors: Professors George and Callister who have worked with General Motors and BMW, respectively.
"While the lack of industry experience is a disadvantage to our efficiency," begins Matt, "it is a direct advantage to our design and it gives us a little edge. When we do things on our own, it takes days, whereas someone who is a mechanic could do it in a lot less time, but a mechanic might take for granted how things work and not be able to visualize a new application of it or how to better adapt a system for a new application. Students, especially engineers who love to tinker, they can come up with new ideas, whereas others might just replace it with a pre-existing part."
One way that the team figures out how a component works is to literally de-construct it. Using this approach, they then re-build it using their own ideas. According to Matt, team members spend a lot of time looking at service manuals to determine how things go together.
Matt asserts that the Cornell team is not relying on any one break-through idea to achieve their goals. "We did not want to develop any one new technology," he says. "We want to go with a systems engineering approach where we analyze all of the needs and how the various components are going to interface together so that we make the most fuel efficient vehicle. Nothing should be selected that doesn't need to be there. We want to avoid over-sizing anything. We created this perfect theoretical component selection and we want to build our vehicle as close as possible to that."