Students lead project to create energy-efficient vehicle from scratch.
By James Dusek
Imagine a car.
Imagine it runs on hydrogen gas instead of gasoline. Imagine it’s about 5 feet long and just wide enough to squeeze in a 5-foot-5 engineering sophomore lying down in a fire-retardant suit. Imagine it’s designed and built entirely by a group of about 20 students at this college.
They have met in the MESA Center to work on this hydrogen-powered car for over a year and a half.
SAC Motorsport, as the group is called, aims to build a functioning hydrogen fuel-cell race car for the Shell Eco-marathon next April in Detroit.
After months of hard work, countless redesigns and member turnover as students leave the college, the group is finally ordering parts and preparing to construct the vehicle.
Engineering sophomore and project manager Dominic Ochoa is confident the group has both the knowledge and the passion required to see the project to completion.
“I’m super optimistic with the team we have,” Ochoa said. “We’ve got a great group of students.”
Ochoa started the project in 2015 after spending that summer constructing a solar-paneled golf cart at this college and realizing the potential in his fellow students. Ochoa, 21, immediately stands out as the “dad” of the team.
He walks and speaks with confidence, as if he’s been leading engineering projects for decades. He sits with students to discuss their ideas for the project, always listening before speaking.
Though he initiated the project, Ochoa doesn’t claim total control.
“I feel good about them taking ownership,” Ochoa said. “This is a really dedicated team. I don’t have to order them around. … They drive themselves.”
The students take pride in ownership of the project. There are no instructors looking over their shoulders, telling them what to do.
“Yeah, we learn things in our classrooms, but there’s no class — there’s no textbook — to teach you how to build a car from scratch,” Ochoa said.
For direction, the students rely mainly on their own engineering knowledge and a binder full of documents detailing cars that previously participated in the marathon. The group also has advisers for advice and much-needed funding, though they don’t exert any official control over the creation of the car.
“If I see them in a corner, then I just turn them around,” said Alfred Alaniz, professor of astronomy and physics. “That is the hardest thing, to not intervene. But failure is learning.”
Alaniz is project adviser — one of several faculty and staff members who assist the team with funding, planning and reviewing design decisions. Advisers and the students agree some level of failure is not only inevitable but healthy.
“We have to break some stuff to learn; we have to suffer sometimes,” said Daniel Martinez, engineering sophomore and mechanical lead. The students sitting around him in the MESA Center buried their heads in notebooks and laptops, working to avoid too much suffering down the road.
“At the end of the day, the direction this car takes both in design and fabrication is entirely up to the students you see right here,” Ochoa said, gesturing slightly toward his teammates.
Students and advisers hope their struggles will result in not only a working car, but an ongoing project at this college.
“The hardest part for this team is — this is your first car,” said Benjamin Uresti, academic lab tech at the MESA center and adviser to the project.
“Once they have success, I think it’ll just start to roll,” Uresti said.
For Ochoa and several other members of the team, this year is their final chance to find that success. They’ll graduate or transfer soon, which means handing off SAC Motorsport to a new era of students. Understandably, there’s pressure on them to leave behind a working hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle — the first one of its kind at this college.
“We want to be the ones to really be the pioneers,” Ochoa said. “So it’s a little selfish, but it’s the God-honest truth.”
Futuristic racecars aren’t cheap. SAC Motorsport receives some funding through the school and various sponsors. Ochoa said the project has cost approximately $15,000 to date, and the team is also looking to the public for donations as they prepare to begin construction.
Donations can be made at www.crowdrise.com/sacmotorsportteam.
For more information on SAC Motorsport, visit the MESA Center in Room 204 of Chance Academic Center.