Rachel Rodney wasn’t originally sold on a plan to use four wheels rather than three as she and fellow students began designing their electric car last fall. Fewer wheels mean less drag on the race track, meaning less power wasted accelerating and stopping a vehicle, she said.
“Everyone else has three wheels, why would you have four?” Rachel said, gesturing toward the other two student-built cars sitting in a west Pasco workshop.
But then Rachel, 17, a Delta High School junior, had a change of heart.
Just weeks away from an upcoming race, she realized the potential aerodynamic benefits of a four-wheeled car being able to sit lower than its three-wheeled counterparts, she said. Four wheels also means more stability, which could lead to energy savings of its own when taking turns.
It’s that kind of critical thinking and problem solving that scientist Peter Rieke is trying to encourage. He’s brought students to his workshop for three years to compete in marathon races, called electrathons. Some build a new car each year, while others refine past models.
Rieke hopes his efforts to build interest in fast and efficient electric cars will lead to more student teams in the Mid-Columbia building and racing their own.
“I can only handle so many students,” he said. “I want to see a regional effort.”
Electrathon racing pits teams against each other to design a car that can go the farthest in one hour on two lead-acid batteries, emphasizing the importance of energy efficiency and aerodynamics. Several races are held around the Northwest each year, including one at Columbia Basin College scheduled for April 25.
Rieke, a staff scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a paraplegic who has built vehicles used to climb Mt. Rainier, first approached students at Delta High three years ago about building the cars.
Delta is the science, technology, engineering and math school cooperatively run by the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland school districts. Students from Richland and Kamiakin high schools, as well as private Catholic high school Tri-Cities Prep, have also joined.
The four-wheeled vehicle being built by Rachel and some of the newer students in the project is new this year, but two models built in recent years will also be entered in races, pending some improvements such as a front-end suspension system.
Rieke offers the students guidance but leaves it up to them to find their way forward. That can lead them to struggle, such as when this year’s new students took weeks to build the construction platform, or jig, they needed to build their car.
Delta High juniors Joshua Duggan, Michael Warner and Connor Gill made the same mistake last year. They ended up with an improperly designed jig, setting them back not long after they started building their car. The misstep kept them out of one race.
“We actually had to scrap our whole frame at one point,” Connor said. “(Rieke) knew the whole time it wouldn’t fit.”
But the students welcome Rieke’s approach, saying it provides a stronger lesson to learn from their mistakes and a greater triumph when their ideas work.
“I used to not be good at technology and joined this club to improve those skills,” Rachel said. “Having to problem-solve here makes it easier to problem-solve in other areas.”
Rieke and the students are optimistic about their chances, despite only racing the past two years. While the first car they built routinely finished last in races, last year’s model placed in the middle of the pack in races involving as many as 30 cars.
While engineering and efficiency are crucial for a winning car, materials are as well. It costs roughly $3,000 to build each car. The students have to had reuse batteries, which cost $250 each, that only have 80 percent of their initial capacity available. Rieke is working with a Tri-City business on a donation to help with that expense, but there’s no guarantee it will provide what the group needs.
Much of Rieke’s effort has focused on getting more students involved in electrathon racing and not just in his workshop. One Tri-City school had a short-lived program to build electric cars, he said, and he’d like to see individual schools sponsor their own teams, similar to how electrathon racing has spread in schools on Washington’s west side and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The students working with him have also appealed to their friends and classmates to join the project.
“It would be great for other students to have the opportunity,” Michael said.
“As long as they don’t beat us,” Joshua added.