Student Car Competitions: The Lifeblood of the Automotive Design Industry
Christoph Hahn posted on August 25, 2016 |

By Christoph Hahn, technical education specialist at MathWorks


A driver pushing the car to its limits while cornering in the endurance race. This race is the climax of each Formula Student event - similar to the Grand Prix during a F1 weekend – where all cars go for 22 laps on the track including one pit stop with driver change. (All images courtesy of The MathWorks, Inc.)

A driver pushing the car to its limits while cornering in the endurance race. This race is the climax of each Formula Student event - similar to the Grand Prix during a F1 weekend – where all cars go for 22 laps on the track including one pit stop with driver change. (All images courtesy of The MathWorks, Inc.)

Today’s cars are incredibly more complex than the vehicles we drove even 10 years ago, and with the move to advanced driver safety features, electric vehicles and autonomous driving there are no signs that this trend is slowing down.

That said, car makers today aren’t just tapping the brains of seasoned engineers in Detroit, or Munich, or Tokyo. 

They are also reaching deep into universities around the world to find the best student talent, because experience has shown us that these budding engineers play a vital role in shaping the car designs of tomorrow.

Think of it: 40 years ago many drivers had no trouble changing the oil, popping in an alternator or swapping in new spark plugs. While the archetype of the hobbyist tinkering with his muscle car in his parents’ garage is still quite alive, today it’s more likely to be a team of engineering students competing to build the prototype of a single-seat electric race car.

Through global competitions such as Formula Student, student engineers are acquiring hands-on skills that are directly transferable to real-world automotive design. Along the way, these young engineers also learn important lessons about teamwork, collaboration across multiple engineering disciplines, project management, budgeting, and presentation skills – lessons that they will apply professionally no matter where they end up.

In fact, Formula Student has become a recognized proving ground for young automotive engineering talent. In part, this is due to the size of the competition – approximately 550 active teams, each with as many as 30 members.

Formula Student is also the only competition in the world where teams start with nothing and then must conceptualize, design, build, test and race their own formula-style vehicles, and then “show” their work to a panel of judges who determine how well each team explains the logic behind the design process.

You might ask how well this model works for the car industry, and what value it actually delivers. As a Formula Student team member myself (2006-2008), I can personally attest to the fact that the skills I learned serve me well in my career 10 years later.

It’s also instructive to note that the Guinness Book of World Records record-holder for fastest electric car acceleration from 0-100 km/h is a Formula Student team out of Zurich, Switzerland (1.513 seconds). This record was also formerly held by another Formula Student team “The Greenteam,” out of Suttgart, Germany. Not bad for a bunch of kids. 


Control algorithms modelled in Simulink can be deployed onto ECUs (engine control units). This software provides a holistic toolchain for developing, deploying and testing control systems for automobiles.
Control algorithms modelled in Simulink can be deployed onto ECUs (engine control units). This software provides a holistic toolchain for developing, deploying and testing control systems for automobiles.

As a way of supporting these Formula Student participants, MathWorks provides student teams with access to MATLAB and Simulink computational software tools. The tools help these young engineers in two ways.

First, they allow students to simulate their designs and accelerate prototyping, which reduces the number of physical models they must produce. This lets them try many more experiments while still getting their projects across the finish line faster.

Secondly, MATLAB and Simulink are the de facto industry standard used by nearly every car maker and automotive systems supplier, which means that student teams are receiving practical, hands-on experience with the same technology they will use in their professional lives.

Car makers know these students develop these skills through the competition. As a result, these companies recruit heavily from the ranks of Formula Student graduates, and represent almost every recognized vehicle brand, including exotic makes such as Ferrari and McLaren. In fact, the automotive industry has hired thousands of Formula Student graduates in the 20 years since the competition was founded.

MathWorks also supports student competitors by posting an instructional video podcast series on our MATLAB and Simulink Racing Lounge site, where students (and engineers in industry, likewise) can further hone their design skills.

And we’re not alone. Virtually every company with ties to the automotive industry sponsors student competitions in some shape or form. It’s a virtuous circle, and through ongoing support of student competitions around the world, I’m happy to be able to give back as much as I received.



About the Author

Christoph Hahn is a member of the EMEA education group at MathWorks, and is dedicated to supporting automotive student competition teams. His main areas of interest include physical modelling, control design and rapid prototyping/automated code generation.

Christoph holds a PhD degree in engineering and material science from TU Munich, a M.Sc. degree in computational mechanics from the University of Stuttgart and a B.Sc. in mechanical engineering from DHBW Ravensburg.

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