23 Nov 2022

Uni students build EV and chase land speed record

From Afternoons, 1:10 pm on 23 November 2022

A group of Canterbury University engineering students has been working on a unique project which they hope will bring them a world record.

Inspired by the legendary Kiwi motorcycle racer Burt Munro, they have spent a year designing and building an electric land speed car and will be taking it to the salt flats of Lake Gairdner in South Australia next March to race.

It is the first electric land speed car made by an undergraduate university team anywhere in the world.

Electric land speed car built by Canterbury University engineering students

Photo: University of Canterbury Motorsport Club

The university's motorsport team principal Kaenan Ferguson told Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan the build was part of the students' final year project but the team's dedication went well beyond a quest for academic success.

"It's no easy feat to build a car in a year and a lot of us commit a lot of time and extra effort to this project to make it possible."

He said the decision to build a car capable of attempting an electric land speed record was based on the various strengths of the team's 16 members, who all study either mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or mechatronics.

"We do a lot of work with electric vehicles ... as well as composites - which is carbon fibre - and we decided these two elements are really lending themselves to a land speed attempt, being lightweight and being in the electric field, so that's kind of what set us on our track."

It helped that all of the team members were big fans of Munro, the New Zealander whose story of setting a land speed record on his Indian Scout motorcycle, was immortalised in the movie The World's Fastest Indian, Ferguson said.

"We wanted to have a  piece of that ... and be a part of that history."

The team even got permission to base their car's livery on that of Munro's bike.

"It was pretty awesome to receive that permission from ... Burt's family to race under his number, so that's something we take with a lot of pride."

They hope their vehicle - UCM35 - will be fast enough to set a new land speed record in the electric under-500kg class, a title currently held by Brigham Young University in the United States.

"They took 10 years to build their car, we're trying to build it in one year," Ferguson said. "That has its own challenges, but we think we're on for a winner."

The fully-electric, front-wheel-drive car has a carbon-fibre monocoque (which houses the driver), a fully electric powertrain system, a parachute deployment system, and on-board telemetry.

The existing record is around 369km/h and Ferguson said his team's car had been designed to "comfortably and confidently go about 370km/h".

And while the team will not get a chance to put UCM35 through its paces on the salt flats in Australia until the new year, they have been able to carry out all-important tests on an old tarmac runway at Wigram Airforce Museum.

One important detail had yet to be decided Ferguson told RNZ: namely, who would be driving the car at the place he described as "one of the world's best surfaces for land speed racing".

"It's just completely flat and it's in pristine condition," he said of the salt flats some six hours' drive from Adelaide.

But whichever team member ended up with that honour would "just have to put their pedal down and go in a straight line, at the end of the day", he said.

Success in Australia would likely see the team pursue bigger dreams, he added.

"If it goes well out there then the plan is to follow in Burt's footsteps and head over to the glory land of land speed racing, which is Bonneville [in Utah] ... that's the ultimate goal, to end up over there, but first things first, one small step at a time."

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