The Hot Wheelz electric racing creation in action.

All-female electric racing team Hot Wheelz showcases expertise of student engineers

Image credit: Hot Wheelz

University team provides female engineering students the chance to showcase their design, problem-solving, manufacturing and project-management skills.

The Hot Wheelz electric vehicle team was founded by a group of female engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in the US in 2012, helped by an enthusiastic advisor. Their mission was to compete in an on-campus electric vehicle contest. In its first year as a team, the women took first place in a field of 12 in the electric dragster race.

The following year they redesigned a vehicle to enter an endurance competition to cover as many laps as possible in an hour. As well as coming third out of 15, the team won the innovation award. In 2014, they were placed third out of 12 in an autocross competition.

Having excelled at on-campus events, the team then decided to get involved in a more rigorous competition. It spent two years designing and building a formula-style electric race car from the ground up to compete in the Formula Hybrid competition (electric-only category) in Louden, New Jersey. It came third in an international field of 12 teams in the electric drive class. It also received two professionalism awards: the General Motors Spirit of Formula Hybrid Award and the Flat Chrysler Automobiles Gracious Professionalism Award.

Here, project manager and industrial and systems engineering student Rachel Heise tells E&T about its 2017-18 vehicle and how Hot Wheelz functions as a team.

What are you currently working towards?

We are working on designing and building our 2017-2018 vehicle. This year will be our first year competing in the Hybrid category of the Formula Hybrid competition. Our overall goals are to have an innovative vehicle design, be highly competitive in the dynamic events at competition, foster a positive and mentorship-focused team, and to continue to learn about new aspects of vehicle engineering.

What are the main challenges of this next stage?

After two years of creating an electric vehicle, the main challenge for this year will be integrating an engine into our design. We have a big learning curve to overcome as our team is still pretty young and has few people with engine experience. That being said, we took on this new aspect as a way to continue to challenge our team.

Our vehicle is a series hybrid, meaning that the engine is used to charge the batteries and does not directly drive the rear axle. This presents complexities in various aspects of the design, including our drivetrain, electrical powertrain and controls.

In this next stage, it is important to us that we continue our mission: to perform well at competition, to grow and sustain our team, and to create a positive learning environment for female engineers.

How do you work as a team? How do you arrive at decision-making?

Our team structure is designed to allow us to work efficiently as a team. The leadership team is comprised of a project manager, chief electrical engineer, chief mechanical engineer, and rules and safety officer. There are eight mechanical sub-groups and two electrical sub-groups, each with one to three sub-group leads.

Each sub-group lead becomes a subject matter expert on that aspect of the car and reports back to their chief engineer about research and designs. We use decision-making tools to guide our design choices, and we discuss these choices with our technical mentors and advisors. We hold preliminary and critical design reviews (PDRs and CDRs) that explain each design on the car and these allow us to receive feedback from our mentors and team members from other sub-groups.

What has been the key to your success working as a large team?

We pride ourselves in project management. We’ve been placed first in project management both years we’ve competed at Formula Hybrid. This allows us to manage many people during stressful build times. We use weekly team meetings to communicate team events and progress, and then we have smaller working meetings several times a week by sub-group to design and build.

Do some team members intend to pursue a career in the electric car market?

Yes, we have quite a few team members interested in electric cars and a lot interested in the automotive market in general. However, because we are an interdisciplinary team and have women from all engineering majors and outside the engineering college, we have members interested in topics from toy design to spaceships. We have alumnae and current members, several with an emphasis in alternative fuel vehicles, working for major car companies right now.

How important is involvement in a project like this to future career prospects?

Being a part of Hot Wheelz has played a huge role in many of our team members getting a variety of co-op and full-time opportunities. This project allows young engineers to really experience product development from start to finish and understand the challenges that arise through the process.

We’ve found that many companies look for SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) build experience and will sometimes prefer these students. Involvement in Hot Wheelz is a great way to stand out from other applicants and gives team members real-life engineering skills that they don’t get in the classroom.

What advice do you have for female engineers wanting to get involved in automotive engineering?

Our advice for female engineers who are interested in automotive engineering is to be confident in your abilities and don’t be afraid of approaching a challenge. Always ask questions if you don't understand something and don't let anyone take away a teaching opportunity by doing it for you. Confidence is probably the most difficult, yet most important trait for a woman engineer.

As you graduate and move on, do new members join the team?

New members are welcome to join the team at any point during the year. Whether it’s during the design phase or the build phase, anyone who is interested and is willing to put time into the team is welcome.

We have information sessions in the autumn that give freshmen and other interested women at RIT the opportunity to see what our team is all about. New members are immediately given the opportunity to become an integral part of designing and building the car. We put a big importance on teaching so that our younger members develop new skills leading to high retention rates for new members.

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