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Best practices and teamwork for student competitions

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Student Car Competitions: The Lifeblood of the Automotive Design Industry

Posted by Christoph Hahn,

Today’s cars are incredibly more complex than the vehicles we drove even 10 years ago, and with the move to advanced driver safety features, electric vehicles and autonomous driving there are no signs that this trend is slowing down.

That said, car makers today aren’t just tapping the brains of seasoned engineers in Detroit, or Munich, or Tokyo. They are reaching deep into universities around the world to find the best student talent, because experience has shown us that these budding engineers are playing a vital role in shaping the car designs of tomorrow.

Think of it: 40 years ago many drivers had no trouble changing the oil, popping in an alternator or swapping in new spark plugs. While the archetype of the hobbyist tinkering with his muscle car in his parents’ garage is still quite alive; today it’s more likely to be a team of engineering students competing to build the prototype of a single-seat electric race car.

© Formula Student Germany, Photographer: Shidhartha, Photo Link

Through global competitions such as Formula Student, student engineers are acquiring hands-on skills that are directly transferable to real-world automotive design. Along the way, they’re also learning important lessons about teamwork, collaboration across multiple engineering disciplines, project management, budgeting, and presentation skills – lessons that they will apply professionally no matter where they end up.

In fact, Formula Student has become a recognized proving ground for young automotive engineering talent. In part that’s because of the size of the competition – approximately 550 active teams each with as many as 30 members. Formula Student is also the only competition in the world where teams start with nothing and then must conceptualize, design, build, test and race their own formula-style vehicles, and then “show” their work to a panel of judges who determine how well each team explains the logic behind the design process.

You might ask how well this model works for the car industry and what value it actually delivers. As a Formula Student team member myself (2006-2008), I can personally attest to the fact that the skills I learned serve me well here at MathWorks 10 years later. It’s also instructive to note that the “Guinness Book of World Records” holder for fastest electric car acceleration from 0-100 km/h is a Formula Student team out of ETH Zurich, Switzerland (1.513 seconds). And that the record was held before by another Formula Student team “the Greenteam” out of Suttgart, Germany. Not bad for a bunch of kids.

[Video] AMZ – World Record! 0-100kph in 1.513 seconds

As a Formula Student corporate sponsor, MathWorks provides student teams with access to our MATLAB and Simulink computational software tools. The tools help in two ways. First, they allow students to simulate their designs and accelerate prototyping, which reduces the number of physical models they must produce. This lets them try many more experiments while still getting their projects across the finish line faster. Secondly, MATLAB and Simulink are a defacto industry standard used by nearly every car maker and automotive systems supplier, which means that student teams are receiving practical, hands-on experience with the same technology they will use in their professional lives.

Car makers know this about these students. They recruit heavily from the ranks of Formula Student graduates and represent almost every recognized vehicle brand, including exotic makes such as Ferrari and McLaren. In fact, the automotive industry has hired Formula Student graduates in the 20 years since the competition was founded.

MathWorks also supports student competitors by posting an instructional video podcast series on our MATLAB and Simulink Racing Lounge site, where students (and engineers in industry likewise) can further hone their design skills. And we’re not alone. Virtually every company with ties to the automotive industry sponsors student competitions in some shape or form. It’s a virtuous circle and through MathWorks’ ongoing support of student competitions around the world I’m happy to be able to give back as much as I received.

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