They’ve had one year’s time. But now it’s just one week until things get serious and their autonomous racing car “egn18-dv” has to complete an unfamiliar course on its own. Not everything’s quite perfect yet. The team of students from TU Hamburg is standing in the blazing sun on a track near Buxtehude and getting the car ready to start. It weighs around 230 kilograms, has an on-board computer, laser sensors, a camera and a C++ program the team has written itself so that the car can control itself.
The car will line up in the Formula Student Germany, one of the world’s most important competitions for budding engineers, which is being staged on the legendary Hockenheimring from August 6 through 12. University teams travel from all over the world just to attend it and have devoted their time, energy, sweat and a lot of brainpower to building their cars over the past year. China, Pakistan, the U.S., Israel – they come from every corner to compete with each other and see who has the fastest, lightest, cheapest and so the best racing car all in all. There are various categories: Cars with combustion engines, ones with an electronic drive, and also autonomous vehicles, a category that was introduced just a year ago. And it’s also been toughened up quite a bit for 2018: The car now has to tackle a completely unfamiliar course – and that’s a huge challenge.
You can see that in Buxtehude. A slight breeze stirs and the pine trees around the track rustle. The car sets off, slowly, tentatively, with short and hesitant intermediate spurts. It manages almost half of the course, which is marked out by yellow and blue cones, before leaving the track and not knowing how to continue. It starts beeping. “Oh dear, it thought the track was somewhere else again,” says Julian Lobisch, a 26-year-old electrical engineering student, with a laugh. He tests the car using various parameters, makes the odd adjustment to the program here and there, and completes lap after lap both at the computer and on the actual track. “At the moment, we spend about 80 hours a week here,” he adds.
Why are they doing that to themselves? “It’s a lot of fun,” says Julian. His fellow students and teammates endorse that. “I’ve always done something on the side, otherwise things get boring,” states Janine Alt, 24, a production engineering student and the team member in charge of finance. “Sometimes you really have to keep a lid on things,” she says with a smile. “Everyone always wants the best and most expensive parts for their bit.” There are only five members of the team on the test track today: The others are at a competition in Austria with the second car, likewise an electric vehicle – with which they pick up first prize. However, that car is not an autonomous one, but needs a driver. The e-gnition team will therefore line up with two e-cars at the Hockenheimring: One with and one without a driver. The team has a total of 60 members.
What I personally like best of all is how everyone sticks together – whether in our team or in the Formula Student community as a whole.
“The event in Germany is simply something special,” says Sebastian Griep, a 23-year-old student of energy and environmental technology who is responsible for marketing. “What I personally like best of all is how everyone sticks together – whether in our team or in the Formula Student community as a whole.” Carl Giest, 26, nods in approval. He is the Technical Head of the Driverless Car, studies engineering and is attending the event for the fourth time. “It’s like one big festival,” he says about the Formula Student Germany at the Hockenheimring. The university teams camp out – and that seems to have a good effect on the mood. “Everybody is so motivated, has already put in such a lot of effort – and we all help each other out,” enthuses Sebastian, who is at the event for the second time.
“The experience you gather here, the great people you meet, the mood among the team – that’s what really counts for me,” says Robert Oehlmann, 28, who studies computer science and is responsible for the software. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult coordinating everyone in the team with each other. “But all in all, we’re in great shape for the competition,” adds Sebastian. It’s important for it to be fun and for everyone to learn a great deal and combine theory with practice – that’s clear. But you also want to win as well, don’t you? “Sure. After all, you need goals,” says Robert with a twinkle in his eye.
Crossing the finishing line first is not enough to win. All aspects are assessed. There are static and dynamic disciplines. In one of the static disciplines, for example, the students explain how they’ve designed and constructed their car, what materials they use, and the costing and business plan. The dynamic ones involve driving in various contests. You can only win the competition by picking up points in all of them – so the top team is the one with the best overall package of construction, race performance, financial planning and sales arguments.
Volkswagen supports students
Formula Student Germany is regarded as the toughest of the worldwide competitions. In 2017, only around one-third of, in particular, the autonomous vehicles passed the scrutineering phase – the meticulous safety check before clearance to start is given. The Association of German Engineers (VDI) has helped stage the event since 2012. However, large companies like Volkswagen also support it and individual teams with know-how and funding. Volkswagen sponsors the following teams:
- e-gnition team from the University of Hamburg
Placement in 2017: 3rd (FSD) & 10th (FSE); placement in 2016: 21st (FSE)
- Bremergy Racing from the University of Bremen
Placement in 2017: 33rd (FSE); placement in 2016: did not qualify
- DUT Racing Team from the TU Delft
Placement in 2017: 13th (FSE); placement in 2016: 2nd (FSE)
- Ecurie Aix from RWTH Aachen
Placement in 2017: 10th (FSD); placement in 2016: 12th (FSE)
- HorsePower Hannover from the University of Hanover
Placement in 2017: 6th (FSD)
- HorsePower Hannover from the University of Hanover
Placement in 2017: 24th (FSE); placement in 2016: 29th (FSE)
- Lions Racing Team from the TU Braunschweig
Placement in 2017: 22nd (FSE); placement in 2016: 34th (FSE)