UW team’s gas/electric hybrid tractor generates a buzz

The UW-Madison’s entry in this year’s collegiate 1/4-scale tractor competition definitely stood out from the crowd. It was the only gas-electric hybrid. It didn’t win first place, but it likely generated the loudest buzz among the judges and industry people in the audience.

The UW-Madison team placed eighth overall among 22 entries and won the “most improved” and “sportsmanship” awards.

There have only been three gas/electric hybrids entered in the history of the competition, which is sponsored by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineer and draws teams from schools across North America. UW-Madison teams built all three of them. The others were in 2003 and 2005.

“The first two didn’t generate the kind of interest this one did,” says Bradley Brooks, an electrical engineer for the Department of Biological Systems Engineering’s machinery lab, one of the team’s advisors.

The first hybrid entry may have struck the judges as a bit of an oddity, but in hindsight, it seems to have been ahead of the curve. The machinery industry is now paying more attention to electric drive trains as advances in power electronics bring down the costs and increase efficiency, Brooks explains.

“There was more attention from the judges this year than in the past. There were more questions, and better-informed questions, not just from judges, but also from other university and industry people. You could tell that people have done some research on the subject and been thinking about electrical vehicles,” Brooks says.

The ¼-scale tractor competition provides students with a “360-degree” design experience, unique among collegiate vehicle-design competitions. They must build a tractor from the ground up, documenting their market research, testing and development, presenting their design to a mock corporate management team, and demonstrating performance in a live tractor pull.

There are about 18 students on the 1/4-scale tractor team, eight of whom went to the competition. Seniors Adam Steen and Hannah Uhlenhake designed the tractor as their capstone project for BSE’s senior capstone design class. Dave Bohnhoff teaches the overall design class. Machinery specialist Kevin Shinners advised Steen and Uhlenhake on the tractor design. The work of building the tractor, including the research and fundraising, was shared by team members.

Uhlenhake has tractor design in her blood. She’s the third member of her family to be on the UW-Madison tractor team. Her sister Naomi was on the 2005 team, while her brother Pat was on the 2003 team that designed the first gas/electric hybrid.

The idea for the tractor competition was born at the UW-Madison in 1998. Neil and Kelly Detra came up with the idea when they were grad students here (their inspiration was an off-road vehicle design contest sponsored by professional automotive engineers. They pitched the idea to the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and organized the first event.