NAU Electrical Engineering Students Are Competing in the 2013 Shell EcoMarathon

NAU students have revamped last year's car for the 2013 Shell Eco-Marathon competition.

A team of Northern Arizona University (NAU students are putting the pedal to the metal, but it won’t be a revving engine and lead-foot that wins the race. Their performance in the Shell Eco Marathon in Houston, Texas, April 5-7, 2013, will rely on the sustainable design of their hand-built electrical car, its fuel efficiency, and its ability to be used by average people.

It is NAU’s seventh year in this competition, and the fourth time NAU students are going to Houston. It is the first time, however, that the group is exclusively comprised of electrical engineering students.

Guiding the students is John Tester, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and campus car guru, who has worked with students on various automotive competitions during his 13 years at NAU. Because of his industrial background, he has been able to give students a real-world perspective while standing off to the side and letting the students get the job done.


This year’s car builds on last year’s efforts. Since the body used in last year’s competition was still intact, students decided to focus on improving the electrical system. “They completely gutted the electrical system, but they kept the frame and wheels,” Tester said. The new system includes a touchscreen system, which the students built and programmed from scratch, and a new electric battery system.

Nonetheless, this year’s team is at an automatic disadvantage in the competition because last year’s vehicle was built for two passengers. “The unfortunate side effect is that when you have a two-person vehicle you’re required to have more structure, which adds more weight and reduces efficiency,” Tester explained.  Despite the large frame, the students were able to shed nearly 50 pounds off the fairing or shell. 

“This type of competition brings the theory and practice together.” 

NAU senior Aniza Brown, the former president of the NAU chapter of the Institute of Electrical/Electronics Engineers, is in charge of running the operation, and she had put her programing skills to work to create the touchscreen controls. Being the leader of the group and the physically lightest person on the team has its perks: Brown will also have the honor of driving in the competition. “I would never have had the opportunity to do anything like this if I wasn’t on this team,” Brown said.

Tester agrees that the experience of participating in the competition is invaluable. He believes attending competitions such as the Shell Eco-Marathon is a great way for students to marry theory and experimentation—as well as reinforce their skillsets. “There are a lot of things that impact theory, and there’s no better way to find out [what these are] than to do it yourself and test it,” he said. “This type of competition brings the theory and practice together.”

Entering in an international competition also allows the students to size up the competition in their field and learn from observing other universities. “The advantage of going to a competition is that you get to go to an event where you realize you’re not just from NAU—you’re part of [the] engineering [profession],” Tester said.


But the competition isn’t the only place to realize how interconnected things are. The fairing, as well as workspace and technical assistance, were donated by Novakinetics LLC, a Flagstaff-owned business that builds composite aircraft parts, such as airplane wing tips.

Jim Corning, a mechanical engineer and the founder and president of NovaKinetics, was instantly attracted to the NAU project due to his interest in electric vehicles. “When I heard there were students working on an electric vehicle I thought, ‘You know, I have done a lot of experimenting and destroyed a lot of expensive stuff learning what worked and what didn’t.’ So I wanted to help them out a little bit and share that experience so that they could maybe avoid burning things up,” Corning said. “I have had years to play with these things—whereas they’ve got a semester and a half.”

Since moving his business to Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2001, Jim and his company have been working with Tester and the engineering department. “John [Tester] has tended to steer car projects our way, particularly if they needed body work,” Corning said. “We helped the students build a body for the electric urban mobility vehicle, in addition to working with them on the drive train. We’re like facilitators. We’re a little bit of a force multiplier for them because we have all the tools set up and ready and easy-to-use.”

In return, Corning said the company has picked up valuable part-time and summer employees. But more than labor, Corning receives personal and professional enrichment from working with the young engineers.  “Mostly, I think it re-energizes my sense of where we’re going each year,” Corning said. “This is a really fun way to be reminded that there are a lot of really sharp and energetic people out there and that the next generation is going to do just fine.” 

-- Maria DiCosola