University students build electric vehicle and chase land speed record

A group of engineering students from the University of Canterbury are working on a unique project which they hope will earn them a world record.

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

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


Photo: Canterbury University Motorsport Club

The university’s motorsport team manager, Kaenan Ferguson, said Afternoon with Jesse Mulligan the construction was part of the students’ graduation project, but the team’s dedication went far beyond a quest for academic success.

“It’s no small feat to build a car in a year and many of us put a lot of extra time and effort into 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 16 team members, all of whom study mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or mechatronics.

“We work a lot with electric vehicles…as well as composites – which is carbon fiber – and we decided that those two things really lend themselves to an attempt at ground speed, being lightweight and being in the electric realm, so that’s kind of what put us on the right track.”

It helped that everyone on the team were big fans of Munro, the New Zealander whose story of setting a land speed record on his Indian Scout motorcycle was immortalized in the film The Indian. the fastest in the world, said Ferguson.

“We wanted to have a piece of it…and be part of that story.”

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

“It was pretty awesome to get this permission from… Burt’s family to race under his number, so it’s something we take a lot of pride in.”

They hope their vehicle – UCM35 – will be fast enough to set a new land speed record in the under 500kg electric category, 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 a year,” Ferguson said. “It has its own challenges, but we think we’re on the way to a winner.”

The front-wheel-drive all-electric car features a carbon fiber monocoque (which houses the driver), an all-electric powertrain system, a parachute deployment system and on-board telemetry.

The existing record is around 369 km/h and Ferguson said his team’s car was designed to “ride comfortably and confidently at around 370 km/h”.

And while the team won’t have the opportunity to put the UCM35 through its paces on the Australian salt flats until the new year, it was able to carry out some very important testing on an old tarmac track at the Wigram Airforce Museum. .

One important detail had yet to be decided, Ferguson told RNZ: who would drive the car to what he described as “one of the best surfaces in the world for land speed racing”.

“It’s just completely flat and it’s in perfect condition,” he said of the salt pans about a six-hour drive from Adelaide.

But whichever team member ended up with that honor, “they would just have to put the pedal down and go straight, at the end of the day,” he said.

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

“If all goes well there, the plan is to follow in Burt’s footsteps and head to the glorious country of land speed racing, which is Bonneville. [in Utah] … that’s the ultimate goal, to finish there, but above all, one small step at a time.”

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