Looking Back at the Most Difficult Hurdle During Finals: Safety/Tech Inspections!

Frank Falcone, one of EcoCAR’s key organizers and technical coordinators (and former competition alumni), was a Safety & Technical Inspector in this year’s competition and explained that although it was a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun.

“Working in the pits with the teams is still the best part of the whole competition year for us,” said Frank. “We see the teamwork, camaraderie, learning, and triumph. We see the strength of spirit in the face of insurmountable challenges. We see the amazing results when students throw themselves at an engineering project with everything they’ve got. It reminds us why what we do is so important and we feel lucky to be a part of it. We can’t wait to do it again next year!”

After the craziness of Finals, we had the opportunity to sit down with Frank and discuss the safety/tech inspections:

GG: What is the first step in the safety/tech process, Frank?

FF: The whole process actually began a couple of days before the students arrived at GM’s Desert Proving Ground for competition. The vehicles were put through a 320 point inspection and the results were logged by the inspection team. The goal here is to give the teams a list of action items, so that they can hit the ground running and know what to focus on when they arrive at the Proving Ground on the first day. This was intended to help them get through the inspection as fast as possible and on to the fun part: driving their vehicles in the competition.  This also gave us inspectors a chance to get familiar with the diverse powertrains. This process took about two days and then the students arrived.

GG: What was next?

FF: As the day moves on, many teams passed inspections and moved on to road safety evaluations. Other teams continued to address issues.

GG: Are the inspectors the only people involved in this process or were others helping out?

FF: GM’s Proving Ground technicians were an invaluable resource in this process.  Some vehicles needed better protective covers, others didn’t have enough ground clearance. Whatever the issue, if it required fabrication, the Proving Ground techs were on it.  We just could not have gotten by without them.

GG: What were the biggest challenges for teams during the safety/tech inspections?

FF: Invariably, there was a group of teams that struggled to get through the inspection process, for a number of different reasons: taking on exceptionally complex designs, suffering an equipment issue-related setback, or just bad luck. Sometimes it was all three. This can be a challenging time for teams and inspectors. The pressure is mounting because we all know time is running out to get through safety tech and on to competing in events. Inevitably, we have to deliver the hard news when time is up. There were probably a lot of students that felt like giving up but instead this was where we saw the true spirit of the competition come through.

GG: What teams showed that resilience and drive this year?

FF: Some teams that kept on keepin’ on were Embry-Riddle, Missouri Science & Technology, University of Waterloo, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Michigan Tech. Each had their own story, but all made huge progress and didn’t stop trying until it was time to move on to San Diego for the second, non-vehicle half of the competition. In the case of MS&T and Waterloo they might have realized early on that their odds of getting through tech inspection were not good but you wouldn’t know it. They built plug-in fuel cell electric vehicles which made for extremely integration intensive powertrains that also had electrical engineering challenges beyond most of the others. Embry-Riddle and Michigan Tech had control related issues that could not be surmounted even with the help of the GM staff. Michigan Tech’s plight was made more difficult by the departure of key team members who were hired into industry just prior to the competition. Rose-Hulman saw a large team turnover at the beginning of the new year which meant their team of mostly undergraduate students had to catch up and do so quickly. They came from an empty vehicle to one that was mostly complete in only a few months. While they missed the safety tech cutoff, they eventually got their vehicle running on all systems and were allowed to do low speed shake down driving in a designated area. Whatever the reason, the teams that did not make it through safety/tech inspections in time carried on despite that setback and made us very proud of them.

GG: This being the first vehicle year of the EcoCAR competition series, we know it’s really a struggle for teams to get fully functional. Were there any special stories you could share with us about teams who almost got there?

FF: Almost every team has a similar story this year – struggling through so many complex challenges to develop a running vehicle. But two stories at the competition really hit home for me. The University of Victoria, or UVic as we affectionately call them, suffered a major mechanical failure that was a major setback and a crushing blow to the team. The UVic team was one of the hardest working all year and made a tremendous effort to get their 2 mode transmission working in all modes.  In spite of all their challenges they also worked to help out other 2 mode teams throughout the year and at the competition. But when the transmission failed at the competition the team “changed gears” to run as an EV and programmed their vehicle to get as much functionality as possible.  And as a result, they made it through safety tech and drove their vehicle in all of the dynamic events. In spite of everything, the team rallied together in the end and ended up with a Fourth Place finish as well as awards for Spirit of the Challenge and Sportsmanship!

Another story of triumph is a long-time veteran of our competitions, Ohio State.  OSU took on what is almost certainly the most complex powertrain design in the EcoCAR fleet and possibly the most complex in the history of these competitions.  They knew their challenges were extremely formidable and we admire OSU for putting learning first even if that meant they didn’t quite make it through all the dynamic events this year. Their stellar design and controls work throughout the year, still earned the team a Fifth Place finish!

GG: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Frank. It sounds like the safety/tech inspections are an intense, yet rewarding experience. We look forward to hearing from you again in Year Three of the EcoCAR Challenge!

Check out the slide show below for a compilation of photos from the Year Two safety/tech inspections:

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