The problem—well, one of them—was the reckless average speed of 20 km/hr was too fast for passengers to take in the scenery. The first iterations of the automobile around the turn of the 20th century spooked farmers’ horses too. Never mind the near daily deaths.
We’ve since built safer, quieter (and less polluting) cars, with technologies funneling down from those tasked with producing such machines for Formula 1 and companies like Tesla. We talked to engineers who’ve worked for both. Grads Thomas Vogel [BSc(ME)/10] and John Hughes [BSc(CompE)/10] had lots to say about their time building racecars at UM, Elon Musk’s deadlines, why you shouldn’t put a spoiler on your ride and the future of flying cars.
As a kid, THOMAS VOGEL woke early Sunday mornings to finish chores on his family’s dairy farm before the weekly Formula 1 race started. He dreamt of being a driver yet knew he lacked the physique, so instead zeroed in on the aerodynamic designs of greats like Adrian Newey. Vogel was into drama, not science, but the idea of being an aerodynamic engineer in F1 had taken root. His mom and dad, immigrants from Belgium, gently noted how much math and science their artsy son would need to study. “There was that gap,” Vogel says, “but I was committed to this dream…and being on a farm, you become independent and get used to learning new things.”
He enrolled in mechanical engineering at UM—and soon joined student group UMSAE, the University of Manitoba chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers International, which builds racecars and airplanes for international competitions against other schools. When Vogel had the audacious idea to build a carbon fibre frame for the team’s car, UMSAE’s faculty advisor first laughed, then supported it. The team had to learn new calculations and run them by hand, working all hours. Vogel recalls collapsing on the floor with an open energy drink still in hand. They finished the car just hours before the competition, without ever having driven it. Sure, the frame cracked during round one’s brake test, but it felt like a victory.
After graduation, Team SauberF1 (now Alfa Romeo Racing) in Switzerland hired Vogel as an aerodynamic design engineer to test prototype cars in wind tunnels before competitions like the World Endurance Championship series and other races that run 24 hours. In 2016 he joined the F1 team as an aerodynamicist to work on the development of their premier car, eventually becoming leader of the engineers focused on improving the rear section. Today he works with Berletex Aerospace, a company that retrofits jet interiors, including for clients who want mansions in the sky.
WHAT VOGEL SAYS ABOUT…
UMSAE Hands down, without that project I would have never been able to get into F1. I mean, you just can’t get into that field without practical experience. When you get into the engineering world, the reality is you have to be creative to solve problems.
Working in Formula 1 It’s very high-paced and things are very dynamic. You never assume that you know everything. You can go really far in F1 if you have that mentality, you just stay grounded, be open to other people’s suggestions, as crazy as they might sound initially. And no one wants to work with an arrogant guy, you know? Everyone knows you’re going to make mistakes. It’s all about how you’re going to solve that problem, right?
It’s very secretive. When you sign your contract, you sign your soul away—your intellectual property belongs to the team. You can’t work for a competitor for six months after leaving. By then whatever you were working on is outdated. There used to be a photographer hired by all the F1 teams to take high-resolution pictures of the other teams’ cars. Then you see how they do things. You can’t copy what they are doing because the cars are so different, but you try to understand what they’re doing and learn from it. What becomes tricky is seeing the underside of the car because it’s easier for them to hide it. So when a car crashes you go frame-by-frame through the images media took and you can learn a lot.
F1 drivers start training when they are, like, six years old, driving carts. They are incredible at what they do. When they go into a turn, they are fighting immense lateral forces and so they train their necks to withstand those forces. They need to push the brake pedal down with extreme force when they go into these turns and they have to be very precise to stay within the operating window of the brakes. It’s insane.
Whether or not you should add a spoiler to your minivan The rear of the car…was always my area of expertise. Your car probably shouldn’t have a rear wing because they create downforce, which creates drag. If it’s coming from the manufacturer, it’s probably fine and maybe gives you a bit more efficiency on the highway, but if you add a big one yourself—if it’s actually doing anything—it will most likely make you burn through a lot more gas.
Electric cars A lot of countries in Europe are banning combustion engines and focusing entirely on electrical cars, which is going to be a problem because obviously the electric car is not ready yet. We need to improve the efficiency of the batteries. There’s also a huge problem with electric: If you’re in a country where you produce electricity with coal, then your emissions will go through the roof once everyone switches over. The demand for electricity will increase. So, with mass adoption of electric cars, we’ll probably see that we’re using up more CO2. We need to get off the fossil fuels; have synthetic fuels—for me, that’s probably the intermediate future before we can sort out electric cars.
Flying cars They are happening right now. There are some companies in China, U.K. and Australia that are testing these right now. There is a company called Airspeeder, in Australia, which is looking at developing flying cars via a competition because they think that—like F1—a competition can propel development (no pun intended). So they’re pushing flying cars and I think it’s already starting to pick up.
What can we build that gets us incrementally closer to solving the problem even if we don’t really know what the end looks like yet?
JOHN HUGHES just had to build things. He altered his childhood bike into whatever his imagination demanded. “It was impressive. And at the same time, completely nonsensical.” At 16, with money saved from his first job, he bought a 1990 Honda Accord from a junkyard and fixed it up. He also took apart his dad’s stereo system and any other device around the house, trying to figure out how they worked.
When he arrived at UM, he heard acronyms for various engineering teams but didn’t realize they meant students were building planes and cars just down the hall from the student lounge. And then one day UMSAE displayed its car in the engineering atrium, and Hughes joined the team on the spot.
That was in 2008. And in his final year in 2010, he was building computers for the car, soldering the tiny chips in place using a toaster oven. Then he co-wrote software that could run the car’s dashboard display and transmission. The thesis work earned the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Ted Glass Award.
Post-graduation he worked for Honda Racing developing software for race engines, moved to Tesla in 2013, then in 2017 he joined Volkswagen’s autonomous driving startup in Germany. Now, he’s in Munich at another startup called Rerun, developing software to bring about a revolution in computer and robotic vision systems, enabling better self-driving cars and devices that aid visually impaired people in “seeing” the world around them using sensors.
What Hughes says about…
UMSAE I feel like it actually made my career. It’s entirely up to you and you have to be self-reliant. Like, ‘How do we want to do this?’ We have to figure it out. It was a super awesome starting point for any conversation in any job interview. It was a really good foot in the door at just about everywhere. For years after graduating, I could answer basically any job interview question with a real story from my time in SAE.
Working at Tesla You can make a car that drives for 1,000 kilometres—that’s easy. That’s peanuts. But now try to make a car that drives for 100,000 kilometres without having everything fail, and that also works in -30 C in the winter and 30 C in the desert.
There were lots of late nights. Lots of: ‘We need to make a prototype’ and we’re in the basement of some old car factory with a bunch of interns and some people who know how to weld and we’re just making stuff. At Tesla, the thinking was: We’re going to run out of money and the company is going to fail unless we make it work.
How UMSAE is like Tesla When I first started at Tesla, my big project was the Model X Falcon wing door. I did all of the control systems for these gull-wing doors that open up. And I was on the autopilot team for two years. That was very similar where, you know, this is an unsolved problem and we’ve got a bunch of really smart people: Let’s build something. What can we build that gets us incrementally closer to solving the problem even if we don’t really know what the end looks like yet? There’s a huge sense of responsibility and ownership.
Elon Musk Hands-on experience is his MO. I mean, we had people on the team who didn’t even have degrees. They were just super bright, self-taught engineers. He was very results-oriented and if you can prove something in first principles that’s the way to go. For Elon, he basically threw out our entire plan at one point because it was too conservative and said, “No, you actually have to do something totally different. And I don’t care if you’ve only got two months left before we start production.” The failures teach you a lot more than the successes do.
Electric cars The days of internal combustion [engines] are limited. So you’ll start seeing gas stations closing and electric charging stations opening up. If you buy a combustion engine car today and you want to sell it in five or 10 years, nobody’s going to want to buy it. It’s going to snowball. That’s my prediction.
Flying cars I’ve got friends who are working on them at German companies. It’s an interesting idea but I don’t know if I really buy the whole proposition. The business model is they don’t have to go to a big airport, that they can open these smaller flying car airports within the city. I just don’t see that actually happening.
The problem is these things weigh a lot and in order to get something that weighs a lot off the ground, it has to have a huge amount of energy density, and big spinning blades are a huge safety concern. It’s the same thing as a helicopter. The problem with a helicopter is in order to get this thing off the ground, you have to offset the weight of this big machine and so you’re blowing this huge amount of air, creating a huge amount of noise. And I don’t think your neighbours are going to be so keen on that, if you’re knocking over all of their lawn ornaments.