Last Sunday, a group of UCI engineering students took home first place at the first annual UCI Energy Invitational with their compressed natural gas formula-style car. The morning didn’t start off so well. In fact, it started disastrously.
“Crushed like a piece of pie,” Robbie explained when he described the wreck. “He must have been going 25, maybe 30 miles an hour. Right into a doorway.”
“Yeah, the front’s busted,” added his teammate Ralph. “None of us really know what happened, but the brake light never came on. Francis probably panicked and hit the gas.” He looks worried for a moment. “But hey, don’t be too hard on him or anything in the piece, OK?”
Usually when we think about alternative energy vehicles, the picture that comes to mind is of white-coated engineers and sterile million-dollar corporate facilities. The cars of the future, the cars that will wean us off of gasoline and save both the planet and our auto-centric lifestyles, will be created by Ph.D.s at Honda and Toyota with unlimited budgets and fancy robots.
In a parallel universe, Robbie, Ralph, Francis and the 33 other members of UCI’s Race Car Engineering Team work on their own alternative energy vehicles. For their senior projects, the team built two cars. Delta ran on compressed natural gas (CNG) and the doomed Gamma car ran on electricity.
The only difference between the Roadeaters, as they call themselves, and the professionals is that no Roadeater has ever built a car and their $17,000 budget consists of personal credit cards and whatever cash happens to be in their jean pockets. It is a world of pizza-fueled all-nighters, of oh-shit buttons and scuba tanks masquerading as gas tanks. Their world is held together by duct tape, a world were setbacks are so routine that when, at 12:10 a.m. on the day of their first race, a sleep-deprived electrical engineer named Francis Albuna drives the Roadeaters’ electric Gamma car into a door, no one is really that surprised or angry. Well maybe a little, but just a little. Accidents happen, after all.