staff, October 2, 2014

It has nearly 3,000 horsepower. It?s reached speeds of more than 300 miles per hour. It looks like a cross between the Batmobile and a Maglev train. And it?s powered by ? electricity?

That would be the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3 (VBB3), a land-racing vehicle developed by students at The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) at Ohio State. The goal of the VBB3 team is simple: Shatter all existing speed records for electric vehicles.

The car got its first notch in August, when it set a new two-way speed record while averaging 213 mph during a there-and-back run on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.

The story behind OSU?s latest foray into electric-powered ?supercars? goes back more than two decades, when the university began participating in the fledgling Formula Lightning series. A collegiate open-wheel racing circuit that traveled around the United States, organizers started Formula Lightning to prove electric-powered vehicles could perform just as well as fuel-powered ones at the fastest speeds.

Soon, Ohio State was dominating the competition: The team won more than half of the races it entered in the ensuing years. However, when the series was phased out in 2000, OSU found itself with a strong electric-vehicle program but no events in which to compete and measure progress.

To put its skills to the test, the group shifted its focus to land-speed vehicles, said David Cooke, current team leader and a mechanical engineering grad student at OSU. Using their considerable knowledge and experience, the student team?s Buckeye Bullet 1 reached 315 mph in 2004, a U.S. land-speed record for electric vehicles that still stands today.

As the bar for the program kept getting set higher, so did the need to bring in new funding and partners. ?About 2009, we started talking to [French sports car manufacturer] Venturi,? Cooke said. ?They became a main project partner and financial contributor. Their goals met ours, exactly.?

The partnership with Venturi has been a boon for the team, but the company?s involvement in the program is at a fairly high-level. Engineering and development, vehicle design, budget management, fundraising, marketing and outreach remains completely student-run.

The students benefit from the experiences they gain in those areas, of course, but the auto manufacturing industry also gets a lot of value from the work they?re doing. The engineering tests the VBB3 team run will help electric vehicles that can compete with fuel-powered ones, in terms of performance and cost, come to market sooner.

?Automotive tech is born on the racetrack: Performance and safety come from racing applications,? Cooke explained. ?Specifically, on our car, where you are really going to get a lot of feedback is in the powertrain technology - motors, batteries, gearboxes - a lot of the same types you see on hybrid and electric vehicles today. We are performing the extreme testing. It?s not really until you see how things break where you can see how you can make them better.

?There are many parts on the race car that have been given to us where [the manufacturer] said, ?Hey, we think these will work for you. If you can test them in the lab and tell us if they work, you can have them for free so long as you give us the data.? Sometimes if they fail, we will go back to the manufacturer and tell them, ?It failed, but what if you do this or that to the design?? and help improve them.?

The VBB3 team is proud of its achievements so far, but sights are already set on passing 400 mph when the car makes its return to the Bonneville Salt Flats next summer. That?s no small feat: Fewer than a dozen vehicles of any kind have ever exceeded that speed there, and it takes more power to accelerate from 300 to 400 mph than it does to go from 0 to 300 mph, Cooke said.

Still, he?s confident it can be done.

?Everything about the [VBB3] was designed to meet the needs to go to 400,? he said. ?When we took that data back [from Bonneville], we were really happy with what we were seeing. We seem to be on track - maybe even a little ahead - on our acceleration. It gives us a lot of confidence that when we go out to Bonneville next year, we can reach 400 mph.?

By Jorge Rivera

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