Pikes Peak, Colo., 23 June—Today, a seemingly bypassed bug came back to bite the Ohio State students behind the Buckeye Current, an all-electric motorcycle that’s scheduled to race up Pikes Peak on Sunday. It now looks like a hardware problem—the last thing they want just two days before the race.
Yesterday, Rob “The Bullet” Barber, the team’s British pro driver, had warned that the throttle was kicking out at ever-earlier stages in his successive test runs on the mountain. The bug was in the engine control system, which prevents the motor from running so fast that the frequency of the alternating-current power supply can’t keep up.
So, yesterday and well into the night, the students on site—a baker’s dozen of them—designed a workaround that would at least limit the downtime to just a second or two. But today, when Barber returned from a predawn practice run, he reported that the problem was getting worse.
The students pulled out the inverter, a device that converts the batteries’ direct current to alternating current, and began testing it and the connections between it and other components. By that point, those connections were more than frayed.
“It’s talking to us, but it’s not sending a signal to the motor; the computer is booting up, but it’s not doing anything,” says Polina Brodsky, who has just graduated in mechanical engineering. “Aaron is trying to talk to the manufacturer.”
Aaron Bonnell-Kangas, the grad student in electrical engineering who’s leading the team, is curled around a cell phone calling Brisbane, Australia, the homebase of Tritium, which makes the Wavesculptor 200 motor inverter.
The inverter costs AU $6,000 (US $4,482), so buying one and having it shipped here overnight would dig deeply into the team’s reserves. Though it has received a great deal of equipment and other help from sponsoring companies, including Bosch, Cummins, and Honda, the Buckeye Current team is chronically short of ready cash. The team members paid their own way here and have split the cost of rent and food.
As feared, no one picked up in Brisbane, which is 15 hours ahead—9:00 on a Friday night. So Bonnell-Kangas shoots off an email to Tritium’s technical expert. If overnighting a new inverter isn’t possible, then maybe the expert can help to lead the team to a solution. In the meantime, the students scramble for a way to get the bike running in less than an hour—in time for the day’s qualifying round.
In case they couldn’t, Barber mounted one of the student’s bikes, a gasoline-powered Kawasaki Ninja 650, in order to have a backup. “Hope they [the officials] count it, but it isn’t the team’s bike,” he says.
As the time for the qualifying round approached, with no solution in sight, Barber rode off. There was no joy in the pit stop, the first one the Ohioans sited at the bottom of the mountain. At just one kilometer above sea level, the air here is easier to breathe than at the higher levels they’ve endured all week. There’s even a food truck (though not all the students are willing to meet the $8 price for a burrito).
“This is fun, too,” Bonnell-Kangas tells the team, with an attempt at a smile. But there is no joy here. It’s the worst problem that anyone here can remember.
Then it’s back to the team’s rented house in Colorado Springs. There, sitting around the dinner table, the engineers opened up the inverter and tried to work out what has gone wrong. Meanwhile, other team members tried to find the personal phone number of the Tritium tech guy (they didn’t); browsed the Web for hardware stores that might stock the appropriate components to repair the inverter; and dealt with other necessary duties, like a festival to publicize the 100th annual running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Early in the afternoon, they found the fault: two fuses in the power supply board have burned out. “We reversed the polarity [the direction of current],” said Bonnell-Kangas. “That burned the fuses, and that interrupted the power supply. We can fix this.”
Here’s the board:
There is joy again, or at least cautious optimism. Victory depends on not being the last to make a mistake.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.