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Students Build a Simpler, Greener Car

Students Build a Simpler, Greener Car

RISD design students and engineering majors from Brown University have used their combined problem-solving skills to tackle a growing global concern: the need for affordable, flexible transportation powered by renewable fuel sources. An outgrowth of the eMotive project—an ongoing collaboration between RISD Industrial Design faculty members Khipra Nichols [BID ’78] and Michael Lye [ID ’96], and Chris Bull of the Brown Engineering faculty—the Out of Gas! studio focused on the needs of urban commuters, using Providence as a test case.

The goal of the studio was to explore “where and how industrial design and engineering intersect” in the context of a real-world problem, Bull explains. The assignment was deceptively simple: produce a vehicle that “provides all you need and nothing more,” powered by a small biodiesel engine, capable of carrying multiple people and cargo, and adaptable for use in the developing world. Overall, the vehicle would need to have “many of the capabilities of a car with the footprint of a motorcycle,” Lye suggested.

To accomplish this ambitious goal within the intense 12-week semester, the class broke into seven specialized teams. While the chassis group designed and tested a structure that was shorter than a Smart Car, the body designers blended elements of their 15 initial concepts into an airy, minimalist form. The drive train engineers settled on a continuous variable transmission, which eliminates the need to shift. The controls group devised a simple mechanism that dispenses with pedals—a priority of the human interface team, which focused on seats and storage. The business/design management group generated a business plan, class blog, website, visual brand identity and came up with the name of the new vehicle: the Coda.

The students took full advantage of RISD and Brown’s complementary expertise and specialized facilities, including the metal, wood and model shops at RISD, and the Prince Engineering Lab at Brown, which offers access to CNC and rapid prototyping technology.

As part of the final critique, students test-drove of a full-scale working model of the three-wheel vehicle. Though it wasn’t yet able to reach its theoretical 45 mph or carry two people up steep College Hill, the vehicle “did move under its own power and there were no major, insurmountable problems,” Lye reports. As an example of what can be accomplished through cross-disciplinary collaboration and well-orchestrated teamwork, the Coda has already proven to more than the sum of its parts.

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