ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Students try new approach to commuting

CORVALLIS – Bouncing up and down in the bright April sunshine, Lianne Miller couldn't wait to climb into a windowless, fiberglass shell and rocket down the main commercial street of this small college town.

"It's a rush," the 22-year-old mechanical engineering student said. "It's like riding inside a helmet."

Miller, a senior at Michigan Technological University, was one of 250 or so college students participating in this weekend's Human Powered Vehicle Challenge at Oregon State University.

The West Coast event, sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, is aimed at encouraging creativity, airing new ideas, and giving students hands-on experience with designing, building and showing off a functional craft. The contest began at the University of California at Davis 21 years ago. A separate contest is held for the East Coast.
Students spend as much as a year working on the human-powered vehicles.

The sleek, futuristic crafts feature one or more riders in a variety of positions: sitting forward, lying on their back or stomach, or seated back-to-back tandem style.

Safety measures such as harnesses and roll bars are a must, as are some sort of shield or cover and any combination of wheels.

The 20-person team at Michigan Tech spent seven months – and about $30,000 in school and corporate donations – creating their 10-foot-long yellow bullet-shaped vehicle.

It's called BIFOB, or "Brains in Front of Butts," a name they say describes both the rider's position and the project's philosophy.

BIFOB is a far cry from the classic, upright bicycle. Instead of pedaling, the prone rider rest on their stomachs and pump the gears back and forth – piston-like – with feet.

Four video cameras in the fully enclosed craft's hood and nose beam images to four screens in front of the rider's face for navigation. The vehicle won the Challenge's overall design competition.

"We all worked so hard on this thing," Miller said. "We really poured our lives into it."

Participants say they relish the chance to take ideas from the drawing board to the pavement.

"Practical application of stuff we learn in class is in short supply," said David Wood, 21, a junior studying mechanical engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "So we appreciate the chance to do it on the university's dollar."

Participation in the Challenge represents a resume boost for engineering students, said contest judge Coleman Johnson, a retired mechanical engineer.

He worked as a recruiter at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. "These are the kinds of people we like: aggressive, innovative, able to work with a team," Johnson said. "That energy is just infectious. That's what does it for me."

The contest races test speed, utility and endurance. The first features a 328-yard headlong dash for the finish, with hay bales on the sidelines to blunt the impact of crashes. The top speed during the race was 43 mph.

Next, drivers prove the usefulness of their vehicles in everyday life by navigating a twisting, curving one-kilometer course to pick up and deliver mock "groceries" -- represented by a 12-pack of soda.

And in the endurance race, all 22 teams line up for a 65-kilometer (40.4-mile) marathon that includes relay riders and pit stops. "We're practicing to streamline processes in the pit, trying to make our responses faster," said Jenna Kraft, 22, a senior in mechanical engineering at Seattle University.

Even with their steel alloy frames and fiberglass shields, the vehicles tend to be accident-prone. Saturday's speed race saw about a dozen crashes.

Spectators cheered the competitors, pushing their bikes and strollers along the course.

"It's different than a bike. It's cool and unique and shows some creativity," said Corvallis resident Erik Suring, seated outside the Interzone coffee shop with two friends.

They watched the speed event from a table on the sidewalk, alternately "oohing" and cringing as a vehicle wobbled out of control. "You can see the terror on their faces," Holly Truemper said with a chuckle.

Return to Transporter Main Page
The Transporter is updated on Fridays