Tuning up tomorrow's engineers through student car competitions

October 7, 2016 OpenSystems Media

Innovations like advanced driver safety features and electric and autonomous driving capabilities are on the rise, and with this changing landscape comes the need to rethink the way we’ve previously built our cars and chosen our manufacturing teams. Car makers today are no longer just tapping the brains of seasoned engineers in Detroit, or Munich, or Tokyo. As designs grow more complex, manufacturers are reaching deep into universities around the world to find the best student talent, sourced from budding engineers that are playing a vital role in shaping the car designs of tomorrow.

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.

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. Simple answer – it works very well. The Guinness World Record holder for fastest electric car acceleration from 0-100 km/h is a Formula Student team out of Zurich, Switzerland (1.513 seconds). That record was previously held by another Formula Student team called “the Greenteam” out of Suttgart, Germany. As a Formula Student team member myself, I can personally attest to the fact that the skills I learned serve me well at MathWorks 10 years later.

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 thousands of Formula Student graduates in the 20 years since the competition was founded.

MathWorks plays a pivotal role in the competition’s success as a Formula Student corporate sponsor, providing student teams with access to MATLAB and Simulink computational software tools. These tools 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. MATLAB and Simulink also provide resources such as the instructional video podcast series on the MATLAB and Simulink Racing Lounge site, which allows students (and engineers in industry likewise) to further hone design skills.

Prototyping and simulating aside, perhaps the most notable benefit to MATLAB and Simulink is that they are a defacto industry standard. Used by nearly every car maker and automotive systems supplier, these tools ensure that student teams are receiving practical, hands-on experience with the same technology they will use in their professional lives.

MathWorks isn’t the only company supporting these student competitions. Every company with ties to the automotive industry is going the extra mile to promote student success. For me, it’s about giving back as much as I have received. As a whole, it’s about supporting the engineers of today and teaching the engineers of tomorrow.

Christoph Hahn is a technical education specialist at MathWorks.

Christoph Hahn, MathWorks
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