Engineering students can expect to be challenged in their coursework, but most likely, the design problems they will face after college won’t be as neat as figuring out how fast a box will move down an inclined plane. A place where engineering students can learn to tackle problems they will face in an engineering career and how to manage unexpected challenges along the way, is UR’s Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) team. Non-engineering majors can gain experience through UR Baja SAE as well.
UR Baja SAE is a student organization on campus that designs, manufactures, assembles, analyzes, and then races a single-seat off-road vehicle. Compared to other intercollegiate racing competitions such as Formula SAE, Baja is the only group that works wheel to wheel, meaning their project is timed as it races simultaneously alongside other cars.UR Baja SAE works throughout the school year and part-time during the summer to design and construct its vehicle and is currently working on creating its first four-wheel-drive vehicle. The majority of the vehicle is made by the UR Baja SAE team, with tools such as lathes, drill presses, angle grinders, welding, and computer programs like SolidWorks and NX. UR Baja SAE is broken down into teams who focus on a different component of the vehicle, which are each led by a team lead.
In total, there are six project teams. The five original teams include “Frame and Chassis,” which focuses on building and testing the frame of the vehicle, “Drivetrain,” which works on the engine and gearbox for the vehicle, “Suspension,” which focuses on the connection of the wheels to the frame and is important for ensuring the car has optimal turning and can go over the obstacles it encounters, “Usability,” which works on the driver to vehicle systems, like steering and breaks, and “Data Acquisition,” which collects data on the car to optimize it and designs different ways to test the vehicle. A new addition to UR Baja SAE is the “Autonomous Vehicle” project. The Autonomous Vehicle project comes from UR alum and former team member Ethan Fahnestock ’21, who was working on an autonomous vehicle for his senior design project. The project has been continued under junior Sam Kriegsman, with a hope to one day participate in an autonomous competition. The UR Baja SAE team as a whole is led by the Chief Engineer, senior Ognjen Bosic, Chief Mechanic, junior Conor McCole, and President, junior Chris Harriott.
The team attends competitions across the country. Most recently, the team attended an unofficial competition hosted by Clarkson University called OktoBAJAfest. The team attends official competitions in the spring run by SAE international, this year attending the Tennessee competition and a competition in UR’s very own home, Rochester, NY. At competitions, the teams participate in multiple events to test the capability of their vehicle. The first test at competition is a tech inspection that makes sure the vehicle is safe to operate. Then, the team participates in tests that rotate from competition to competition, like acceleration, a hill climb, suspension, traction, and maneuverability.
The competition always has a four hour endurance test, which has all the teams try to drive for as long as possible on a large track. The track often requires teams to utilize mechanics from previous tests, like suspension and maneuverability. The teams are measured based on how many laps they are able to compete. The vehicles are expected to break, and the teams are ready to fix them. If you ask the UR Baja SAE team about some of the breaks that have happened during competition, they’ll respond with a couple of chuckles and stories — it’s par for the course and part of the challenge.
The competitions also include a business component, where the teams give a sales presentation. The teams are then ranked based on how many points they have earned over the tests. At their last competition, UR Baja SAE ranked in the top 20. “It’s really cool to see everything that you spend your time working on kind of being tested,” Kriegsman described.
While there are many engineers on the team, UR Baja SAE is open to all majors. UR Baja SAE offers opportunities outside of engineering and wants people outside of engineering to join. There is a need for people to work on the sales presentations for competition, the business side of designing the car, marketing, someone who loves art helping with the aesthetics and graphic design of the car, and people who can help with newsletters. And for non-engineering majors who would like to participate in the building of the car itself, there’s opportunity for that, too — despite being Chief Mechanic, McCole does not study engineering at all, and is actually a Classics major. No experience with designing, manufacturing, analysis, assembling, or driving is required at all; the team will teach you everything you need to know. “No one expects you to know what everything is and how to fix it,” McCole said. “It’s more like, problem-solve together and then someone who does know [how to fix it] will tell you what tool to use and how to use it.”
For engineering majors, working with the team is a great way to gain experience designing and building, and a way to encounter challenges they might not face in the classroom setting that are important for a career in engineering. “You come out of it knowing when someone says, ‘I want to solve this problem,’ you not only have the skills to solve that you learn in class, but the people who just go to class and don’t do things like [Baja], they don’t know the realistic time and money it takes to actually do it,” Kriegsman explained. “It’s really easy to design a solution to a problem that you can’t actually build, [in the real world] you [might] have a bolt that actually can’t go in, but you don’t realize it until you have to make it. Or it might be a good solution, but it’s just astronomically expensive. So things like that, I think, are our most valuable skills.”
While Baja can be a lot of work, the group doesn’t let it deter them from having fun. They work together and hang out on the weekends, but have team traditions such as attending the Boar’s Head Dinner together.
“Baja is made up of people; yes it’s engineers, and yes we’re all dedicated to what we do, but we’re still a fun club, and we’re still having a great time in Taylor [Hall], and some people kind of forget that,” Harriott said. “As cliche as that sounds, it’s true.”
UR Baja SAE is a way for engineering students to learn what engineering may look like out of the classroom, but it’s also a way for anyone to learn about design, and the non-STEM side of the STEM industry. While UR Baja SAE focuses on creating, there’s a lot to be learned from the failures and mistakes; it’s all part of the design process. “Honestly, it’s pretty interesting to see the parts break like you see that and you’re like, ‘I know why it did that,’” McCole expressed. “You see the failure because there’s a lot to be learned from those destructive moments.”