A group of students build their own self-driving racing car: “We were on the look-out for a crazy idea!”

UGent Racing
05 October 2021 |

To single-handedly build a racing car - for a group of university students, it’s certainly no mean feat. Today, they are already working hard on a second model, and with this new model they now have their sights set even higher. This is the story of a group of engineering students who had absolutely no desire to spend yet another year “on hold” because of corona. In the meantime, their “business” is up and running, and it is a well–oiled machine that would be the envy of many professional companies.

October 2020. Two students, Yarne De Munck and Jelle De Decker, sensed immediately that the corona restrictions in place meant they were facing yet another difficult year. Furthermore, Yarne had begun the year as chairman of CenEka, the organisation for civil engineering, computer science and electrical engineering students at Ghent University.

Putting theory into practice

“We had to have a bit of a think first of all, as to how we could spend the year in a meaningful way”, explains Yarne. And meaningful meant, above all, how could they start to put the theory of their studies into practice? “ Finally we came up with this crazy idea: we said to ourselves, why not build our own self-driving racing car?”

Knowing that they would be needing help, they pitched their idea to Pkarus, the civil, mechanical and electrical engineering student organisation at the university. Straightaway, its chairman, Mauro Daese, was extremely enthusiastic.

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Roaring success

Once they had persuaded their professors to also get behind the project, the work could begin. From day one, they adopted a highly professional approach. First of all they organised an online information session to try to recruit other engineering students. “If we were going to build a self-driving car ourselves, we knew that we needed to have different profiles and expertise within the team”, says Mauro. Yarne adds: “To be honest, we were a bit afraid that hardly anyone would show up, since we were all so sick of the continuous online meetings and lessons. But it turned out to be a huge success.”

Indeed, it was such a success, they decided to ask the potential candidates to each write a motivation letter explaining why they wanted to be part of the project. Then, using these letters as the basis, they organised interviews. Yarne: “We were able to get a good idea pretty quickly of who we thought could bring added value to the team”. They divided the students up into different teams. Mauro became the leader of the ‘drive-train’ team, the team that is responsible for the car’s propulsion system. His team works on the transmission from the motor to the drive shaft, and on the wheels and wheel rims. Yarne found himself the ‘team captain’, in charge of the various teams.

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Jaguar and Proximus as sponsors

Over the past academic year, they have spent countless hours sitting behind their computers, programming and consulting each other via video calls – face to face meetings were of course impossible. Now and again they had a meeting with their professor for an interim evaluation – figuratively of course, since these discussion moments were also virtual.

Finally, as the summer arrived, it was time to start physically building the car. Thanks to a number of sponsors, they had managed to collect some money with which to rent space in which to work. And indeed, these weren’t just any sponsors: both Jaguar and Proximus had agreed to invest in the project. “Thanks to Proximus, for example, we have been able to equip the car with 5G, so that every piece of information we receive from the onboard computer is incredibly precise.” In return for the sponsorship, the students were invited by the companies to make a number of presentations about their innovative project at company workshops.

Thankfully, in the meantime, the corona restrictions were lifted a little, which meant that finally the students were able to properly work on their car, albeit in small groups only at first. “That is when we all met for the first time. It was actually a bit awkward”, Yarne and Mauro laugh. “We’d seen each other so often. But just not in real life.”

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The next step: international races

It is now three months later, and the car is finished. The workshop is completely full of students. One student is testing the 3D printer. Another student is drawing and cutting into a metal sheet, carefully following a technical drawing. Two others are examining what they have built with a critical eye: the result of a whole year of passionately hard work. At the moment, there are 60 students in all. Soon the team will increase to 80. They have all worked on the car together, some of them a whole year long. Their very own, electric, self-driving racing car.

And they have even bigger plans. “Now we are going to start work on a new model”, says Yarne enthusiastically. “Our plan is to take part in international races with this new model. That is on the agenda for next summer.” Formula Student is the name of the competitions which take place in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy, and engineering students from all over the world compete.

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Marketing and business management

Building a car is one thing. But to build a real, electric, self-driving racing car, a car which can also actually race, and which is the subject of a certain amount of buzz and interest is a totally new step. For a start, they have had to add many new students to the team. Yarne explains: “This academic year we will have marketing and business management students working with us as well.”

One thing that they are not short of, and that is helping hands: this year, no less than 13 students have chosen the racing car as the subject for their thesis. Dave Seynens, for example, is a student in electromechanical and industrial engineering. In his free time, he likes to work on vintage cars. Being able to work on the racing car and on his thesis at the same time is for him a truly ideal combination. “My thesis is actually very theoretical.” Dave explains. “But this have given me the chance to combine theory with practical execution. At the moment, for example, I am working on the wing of the car, which I first designed myself. It is fantastic that I can do both.”

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Alexander Maes, who designed and built the steering wheel, agrees. “Everyone here has a real passion for engineering sciences and Formula 1 racing cars. It is really great that we have the chance to combine both. And because we all share the same interests, we have now all become really good friends as well.”

And their ambition? It’s to win!

Friendships have blossomed in the workshop, but the students themselves have also grown. Yarne and Mauro can see this very well, since running the project is very much like running a company. “It is,” agrees Yarne with a smile, “Only without any kind of salary.” They still have a lot of work ahead of them, but they also have a very clear ambition. Which, of course, is to win as many races of possible.

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A team of eighty Ghent University students is building an electric racing car that will compete in Formula Student competitions starting next year. In these competitions, universities worldwide compete with self-built cars. You can follow the team's progress on the UGent Racing website.

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Ghent University students race this summer with self-built electric car

This summer, the time has come: Ghent University students will take their self-built electric racing car to the Formula Student competition, a series of races for engineering students from all over the world. What started as a lockdown project by a few engineering students has now grown into an ambitious multidisciplinary undertaking.

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