It has recently been 10 years since the first UPC ecoRacing podium with the plug-in hybrid ecoR2 in the year of the debut of the first hybrid racing car in Spain. It was in Turin, in October 2010 representing Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
Our CEO and founder, Baltasar López, was the Team Leader and director of the project after having founded UPC ecoRacing in 2007, together with a group of industrial engineering students from the Polytechnic University of Catalunya. Now it is increasingly common to see electric cars outperform their combustion counterparts, but in 2007 it seemed crazy to design an electric car to compete against gasoline cars on circuits around the world. Now, ten years after the first racing successes of UPC ecoRacing’s eco-friendly cars, we interview the entrepreneur who led that group of innovators years before founding Enchufing and Millor Battery.
Next, we share a complete and interesting interview on the occasion of this anniversary.
Baltasar, how do you remember that first podium of 2010 in Turin during Formula Student Italy?
It was brutal because our goal really was to get the car finished on time and pass the technical checks successfully. It was the first year of competition and this was already a big challenge for a debutant team.
The one in Turin was our third and final competition of the season. That same summer we had debuted at Silverstone with a sixth position, just one week after the presentation of the car, and we had participated in the first edition of the Formula Student Spain at the Circuit de Catalunya. In Barcelona we only participated in demo mode as the only hybrid car. Spanish regulations still did not foresee the possibility of participating with electric cars.
Any anecdote to highlight from this competition?
Not having the goal of winning, we were second just a few points behind the Turin team that ran at home and we beat two great references such as the Swiss team from Zurich and the German from Stuttgart, then current champions of the competitions in England and Germany respectively. It was quite an award, for so much effort over more than two years and starting from scratch considering the differences in experience and budget. We live many anecdotes, but the most remarkable is that due to a problem in the electronics of the combustion engine just before starting the final race; we ran the entire Endurance race in 100% electric mode. This penalized us in terms of performance, but at the same time allowed us to win the energy efficiency assessment, thus achieving second overall position. We designed the powertrain of the car precisely so that the electrical system and the gasoline system could work completely separately if the electrical part, the newest, failed. The result was just the other way around and it was precisely the combustion engine that failed us. Paradoxes of life … the electric part held up perfectly and we completed the race with zero emissions.
In 2010, you presented the first hybrid racing car developed and manufactured in Spain. The idea was born in 2007 and UPC ecoRacing was established in 2008.
Why did you bet on making an electric hybrid car instead of a combustion one like all the Formula Student teams back then?
Other international universities took ten years of experience with combustion cars from us and we had no references. In addition, then, people began to talk about the electric car as the technology of the future and we were passionate about cars with the intention of finding a place in that future.
We could not make a better combustion car in two years than others had been making for ten years, but we could innovate with an ecological one and that is what we did. In addition, we also innovated with the way we organized ourselves, being a totally student initiative and constituting ourselves as an independent, non-profit technological research association with its own legal entity. That gave us a lot of agility to be able to close agreements with companies that would support the project.
How eco-friendly was the UPC ecoRacing ecoR2?
Our competitors mostly equipped 600 cc four-cylinder engines while we opted for the combination of a much smaller 250cc single-cylinder engine, combined with a 60hp electric motor. This allowed us to maintain performance by reducing emissions by more than 50%. In addition, we had a 100% electric driving mode, but the “eco” concept went far beyond the powertrain, since the “sustainability” factor was also considered in the selection of materials and manufacturing processes for the entire car.
Manufacturing a competition prototype involves a significant financial investment in addition to design time and labour. How did you get the resources to carry out the project?
Indeed, the manufacture of a hybrid racing car was a challenge for us, also economically because all the parts were prototypes. However, being the first initiative of its kind, it helped us a lot to attract the attention of companies that trusted us. People like Ana Rubio from Henkel, Conrad Gallofre from SKF or Ramón Comellas from Circutor, trusted us when the project was still just an idea and we have always been incredibly grateful to them. Fortunately, things turned out very well and the project obtained significant media coverage, which helped the sponsorships to grow and be renewed in the following years despite the worst of the economic crisis.
Furthermore, and although the project was totally independent from the curricular program, UPC ecoRacing had the support of the INSPIRE program of the ETSEIAAT, led by Professor David González, who contributed (and still does today) to the development of entrepreneurship and experimentation projects promoted and managed by the students themselves.
This success was followed by many more and UPC ecoRacing continues to compete today at the highest level representing the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and the Terrassa School of Industrial, Aeronautical and Audiovisual Engineering. Isn’t that so?
Yes, the following year we achieved a second position at the Circuit de Catalunya and in 2012, with the third car we achieved third position and victory in the category of engineering project in the United States.
These successes of the different versions of the ecoR2 hybrid were followed by other subsequent generations of the team with the ecoRZ and ecoRX in Germany and Australia, for example.
Now that almost all Formula Students are electric, do you feel like you were pioneers?
We simply wanted to do it differently, with more environmental awareness, but also for the mere fact of learning more. The truth is that we were the first and in some competitions we were the only ones with an electric hybrid car, but today, practically all the teams have switched to electric technology and the competition regulations themselves have been fully adapted to this technological change.
What was your main learning from undertaking a project like UPC ecoRacing?
Apart from the technological component associated with the electric vehicle, without a doubt, the most important thing was the value of teamwork and innovation. Teamwork because it would have been impossible to achieve so many successes without a whole team that was perfectly sympathetic, motivated and coordinated. Innovation because we did not always have the fastest car on the track, but being the first ecological, plug-in hybrid, made us unique providing advantages of all kinds.
Can the technology developed at UPC ecoRacing be found in commercial vehicles today?
It should be noted that although the Formula Student cars are small in size, they have acceleration performance that is closer to a Formula 1 than to a street vehicle, so the technology is not directly applicable, but in a certain way, current applications of concepts and technology we used then can be seen. As an example, the batteries of the first ecoR2 were lithium iron phosphate of about 6kWh and these of the last ones, lithium manganese cobalt of 4kWh. In all cases they were batteries developed by us and these technologies are the most common today in commercial electric cars.
Are you still linked to UPC ecoRacing?
UPC ecoRacing marked my educational career and my work vision. We suffered a lot, but we learned more and had a great time, so much so that it is impossible to disengage. Today I am still the President of the association, but I do not participate in the design or the day-to-day decisions of the Formula Student team. Together with many other alumni who consituted or went through UPC ecoRacing, we take care of mentoring and training the new generations ensuring the transfer of knowledge without losing the original values of UPC ecoRacing: learning, innovation and ecology in the world of cars. The association also maintains the link between all the members who have passed through the team with activities related to engineering and the automotive industry.
Does going through UPC ecoRacing guarantee a good job for an engineer?
Many of the engineers at Enchufing and Millor Battery have passed through UPC ecoRacing as students. There, knowledge and truly relevant experience are obtained for what we do at work level. Obviously, it is always convenient to enrich the experience with work in the real work world. I myself worked in the Ascamm and Eurecat technology centers, becoming the Head of Batteries and Electric Vehicles at the Catalan technology center before taking the leap and starting professionally by setting up the Enchufing and Millor Battery companies. Another example is that of the Technical Director of Enchufing, Guillem Penalva, who was the one who succeeded me at UPC ecoRacing as Team Leader of the Formula Student team in 2014. Later, after working for a few years at Altran automotive engineering and at the Technical Center of SEAT in electromobility projects, joined Enchufing.
We assume that you have no doubts that the future will be electric.
In case there is still any reluctance, from our companies we try to do our bit; precisely from Enchufing we work to improve the possibilities of recharging and from Millor Battery to improve the batteries that allow greater autonomy.
Although the present is already electric, this is only the beginning and the best is yet to come.