A First Year’s Experience at SAE’s Formula Competition

Alex Wenstrup ‘22

“When I used to recruit in a technical company, my engineering managers always said, ‘Bring me a student who’s been on a vehicle team.  When they go to competition, they are doing engineering on the fly. That is how you learn."  - Sally Phelps, PGP Director


Hi everyone!  My name is Alex Wenstrup, and this is my first Olin blog post! I am working in PGP this summer and so I’ll be doing some blogging about the experiences of Olin students and alumni.  

I’m delighted to start off by giving you a glimpse into the life of an Oliner as I wrap up my first year.

I am a member of Olin’s Class of ‘22, so I will be a sophomore next year (yikes)! I plan on majoring in Engineering with Computing, and when I’m not at Olin, I live in Mamaroneck, New York. Outside of class, I play frisbee at Olin, give tours, and I am a member of Olin Electric Motorsports (OEM).

I recently got back from Barrie, Ontario, where I have been with 24 other members of OEM for the last six days. Olin Electric Motorsports is one of the largest clubs on campus, and every year, we work to build and race an electric car at competitions run by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The team has been working on the car all year, and competition is the culmination of all our hard work.


Mark IV, our team’s fourth electric FSAE race car

 While debugging, I help another rising sophomore test the connections between two parts of our low voltage electrical system.

The night before we left Olin, we loaded our truck with our tools, spare parts, and Mark IV, this year’s car. By 3:00 the next afternoon, we were in Canada at registration. That night, we grabbed a quick dinner, and got to work on our battery pack.

The battery pack, or accumulator, is one of the hardest parts of the car to build for two reasons. First of all, it is one of the most complicated parts of the car, and there are a lot of safety checks we have to build in to make sure our high voltage battery is indeed just that, and not a bomb. Second, because electric vehicles are so new, there isn’t much conventional wisdom to follow. Most of the work we do on our team is informed by industry standards, and we always aim to do professional level work, but electric cars are new enough that there aren’t many conventions to follow when building an accumulator. As a result, the accumulator is the part that varies the most from team to team at competition.

After a year of hard work, our battery pack was almost done. The accumulator subteam had already designed and built an entire accumulator from scratch, and one of the only things left to do was some final debugging of the battery management system. The battery management system, or BMS, is responsible for a lot of the safety checks we have to do before connecting the battery to the motor, like making sure all the individual cells in the accumulator are at a safe operating temperature.

After a hard night of work, we got our accumulator inspected, and after receiving feedback from real automotive engineers who volunteer as judges and technical inspectors, we made a few final improvements. The following day, our accumulator passed technical inspection, an impressive feat that only about one quarter of teams that register for the competition are able to achieve! One day later, we were able to pass mechanical inspection, though despite our best efforts, we had an unforeseen error that occurred about 90% of the way through electrical inspection, and we were unable to pass. Therefore, after a long season full of high hopes and hard work, we were not able to race our car after all   :-(

Despite that disappointment, I had an incredible season, and an incredible competition. I came into Olin knowing absolutely nothing about electrical engineering, but by the time I got to Barrie, I considered myself a useful member of the team, capable of doing real work on almost every electrical system on the car. That was largely due to the monumental efforts of this year’s sophomores, juniors, and seniors to bring me and the other first years up to speed. Our team, more than most, prioritizes teaching and learning, which made my experience this year as great at it was.

I hope this post taught you something new about Olin, and I hope you have a great summer!

P.S. See you at the club fair, class of ‘23!

Photo credit to Alex Chapman, ‘20

 Here, I’m working on wiring for the charging cart, which we use to charge the battery pack

Mark IV’s throttle controller, which I designed, built, and programmed, with the help of the team’s more experienced members.

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