Time froze for Bill Murray during the first run of the brake test. The car, which weighed 50 pounds less than any other team’s entry into the 2009 Formula SAE student competition in California, had already passed technical inspection. The next task was to lock all four wheels and stop the vehicle in a straight line at the end of a short acceleration run.
It didn’t go as planned. When the driver stopped, the car bounced several times, and then the entire suspension broke off its front end. The chassis was ripped apart; the car’s wheels were bent in. It wouldn’t even roll.
But then something exciting happened.
“The second it broke we went back to the pits,” Murray says. “There was maybe 5 minutes of shock, and disbelief, and every other team assumed we were out. Most people on the team were on the verge of tears. Then a couple of us looked around and started asking, ‘Can we fix this? Can we fix that? Ten minutes later the entire team was mobilized.”
Murray, a past team captain who is now a mechanical engineering graduate student and technical adviser to Oregon State’s Formula SAE design team, said it was his most memorable experiences during his seven years of involvement with the team. That’s saying a lot, because the team has had a lot of success as the world’s top-ranked team for the past two years. The genius that emerged that day was a combination of necessity, hard work, and trusting your teammates – all of which make the Oregon State team so special.
The experience also underscores the power of hands-on skill. The team, which is largely comprised of College of Engineering graduate and undergraduate students, bonded their car’s chassis back together. They twisted the suspension straight again and reinforced it. They worked all night in the hotel parking lot—not much of a stretch for Murray and his teammates, who as a group spend tens of thousands of hours working on their competition cars.
The next morning they were the first team to go through the technical inspection again. They passed. Then they passed the brake test.
In the end, they won second in the overall competition, and placed second in design, second in business presentation, and first place in the endurance/fuel economy event. “We came back from a failure where everyone thought we were done,” Murray says. “It shows the character of our team and our students more than anything else.”
It also laid the groundwork for future success. The team carried many of the concepts of their vehicle design into 2010 and 2011, including the philosophy that focuses on a lightweight, highly maneuverable, fuel-efficient car. They continued to receive material and parts donations from companies like Daimler, 3D Systems and ZF.
But what really transformed the team was formalizing the collaborative relationship with the team at DHBW-Ravensburg in Germany in 2010. That year, the two teams worked together to enter combustion and electric cars into competitions in the US and Europe.
The combustion team took the Formula world by storm, coming out ahead of more than 100 teams from around the globe from the start of the official collaboration during competition in Michigan.
It wasn’t an easy road, though. Although the essence of the SAE effort lies with the team as a unit, it’s up to individuals to create and test dozens of different components of the car, which means that many individual efforts must coalesce into a synchronous whole. It seems unlikely, given that the effort involves 80 students an ocean apart, but they found ways to make it work. To keep in touch daily, the students in Germany and the U.S. used Skype, Google docs, and shared network storage space. It was challenging at times, and there were cultural and linguistic barriers to overcome, but all of it has been worthwhile.
“You end up learning about global collaboration, and working with the German students was an amazing learning experience you’d never get if you weren’t involved with this program,” Murray says. “It’s extremely relevant to companies. Most large engineering firms in the world are global conglomerates.”
Large firms are more than casually interested in the team, mostly because of the practical experience students obtain. Even in a struggling economy companies like SpaceX—makers of the next generation of spacecraft—are recruiting team members.
Moving on to the next challenge is alluring for Murray, but it’s still hard for him to think of leaving the team. “It makes it hard to leave to do another job when you’re doing so well,” he says. “I came to OSU to get a degree, but doing this program made me want to learn engineering.”