A new formula for success

Terry Spall, Chief Judge at Formula Student and Commercial Director at MIRA Technology Park, speaks to Shaun Hunter about the world-renowned competition that is now moving into the autonomous space.

Steven Armstrong

Terry Spall

Making its UK debut back in 1998 at the MIRA Technology Park, Formula Student celebrated its 20th anniversary at Silverstone this year, topping two decades of success. This triumph is born from producing employable engineers that have graduated through a real project that exposes students to working in a team, operating under pressure, sorting out financial issues and delivering the project in a competitive environment. The skill sets that these future engineers are obtaining through Formula Student means that they are not just academically qualified but completely prepared to jump directly into a real-world role. Over the years, approximately 40,000 people have been involved in this process, with teams from 30 different countries around the world coming together each year to go head-to-head. The growth of this event is, quite frankly, spectacular, with its best - and arguably most important - years still ahead.

"We have quite a few industry sponsors, such as Bosch and Jaguar Land Rover, who want to get their hands on these students first, forming part of their recruitment cycle," explains Chief Judge, Terry Spall. "Generally, these careers are boosted because of this experience." It's not just a matter of going into motorsport, but the research and development processes behind this which are being utilised more and more within commercial products. Students are working on anything from powertrains to lidar sensors, which are both seeing a huge rise in demand across the market. "Unlike Formula 1, the regulations are deliberately open to facilitate innovation. You can bring any sort of idea in and, providing that it meets the safety regulations, we are happy to consider it, which produces some amazing vehicles each year," Spall continues. Students must design and build the car, set up their own supply chain and test the system, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the entire operation. Once they get to Silverstone, they are then put through a series of trials, to find out how far they have come. However, it's not just about driving the car and finding out how fast it goes, as the competition involves a full design review, cost analyses and business presentation to investors. After this, students must then put the car through scrutineering which involves judges from F1 teams. "We have teams of judges from across the industry, which look at how well the students understand it all, from the cost of the completed car to the safety regulations. Ultimately, they can decide where to score points and spend their money in the competition, focusing on certain points rather than others where they may be weaker on," adds Spall. 

After a lively champagne reception in the wonderful surroundings of the Savoy’s River Room, with its magnificent views over the River Thames which was generously sponsored by TNT, guests moved to the beautifully-appointed dining room which looked particularly inviting with its candlelight tables.

Self-driving the future

The two main categories in Formula Student are internal combustion engines and electric propulsion, which makes it the only competition in the world where both powertrains can go head-to-head. "Dynamic trials for these include an acceleration, lateral acceleration, sprint event on a track and an endurance event, lasting over four days," explains Spall. However, Formula Student has now opened up a new event focused on autonomous software, replacing human-controlled race cars with self-driving alternatives. Talks started a few years ago as the technology started to emerge in the industry, thanks to the rise in connected car technology, as Formula Student wanted to provide the same level of support as it has so far to a new area of business. "We produce people with the right skills to the industry," says Spall. "The industry is migrating towards connected autonomous vehicles, so we need to change to make sure that we maintain relevance." Following Germany's decision to include an autonomous competition last year, Spall and his associates identified that instead of students building the car, they wanted to create an environment for software developers that would allow them to shine through working on an existing race car. "We wanted students to focus on the AI by creating a platform for them so that they can focus on the software and sensors, rather than the vehicle itself," describes Spall. 

The two main categories in Formula Student are internal combustion engines and electric propulsion, which makes it the only competition in the world where both powertrains can go head-to-head. "Dynamic trials for these include an acceleration, lateral acceleration, sprint event on a track and an endurance event, lasting over four days," explains Spall. However, Formula Student has now opened up a new event focused on autonomous software, replacing human-controlled race cars with self-driving alternatives. Talks started a few years ago as the technology started to emerge in the industry, thanks to the rise in connected car technology, as Formula Student wanted to provide the same level of support as it has so far to a new area of business. "We produce people with the right skills to the industry," says Spall. "The industry is migrating towards connected autonomous vehicles, so we need to change to make sure that we maintain relevance." Following Germany's decision to include an autonomous competition last year, Spall and his associates identified that instead of students building the car, they wanted to create an environment for software developers that would allow them to shine through working on an existing race car. "We wanted students to focus on the AI by creating a platform for them so that they can focus on the software and sensors, rather than the vehicle itself," describes Spall. 

A need for change

The large automakers are now demanding software developers and specialists due to the technology boom, as most do not have the same expertise as some of the new players coming from outside of the industry. They are crying out for new skills and, with this new competition, Formula Student can directly address this issue. This becomes even more important when looking at the UK, which is quickly becoming a new mobility pioneer on the world stage with hubs emerging in areas such as the Midlands which are aiming to create a completely new industry. "We have to realise that we can't do everything and that other nations will take the lead in certain areas of this technology. However, the UK has a very strong place at the mobility table, which has been recognised by the Automotive Council which brings together government and industry, which has seen some very smart investments in the right areas in terms of infrastructure and testing," says Spall. "But if you haven't got the skills needed to develop this kind of stuff, then you are no further forward." Formula Student can assist the process of producing young engineers and software developers that have the right skills. "Providing the competition is always in sync with the industry needs and is geared to encourage these skills, then it's going to work very well," continues Spall.

Most judges involved in Formula Student come from within the industry, assessing students from their own professional perspective in terms of what they do. This provides further coverage for Formula Student and the mobility industry across senior leaders around the world, identifying the potential of a billion dollar market in the future. "If you look at it at the highest possible level, I think we are doing all the right stuff and are in a really good position," adds Spall. The potential is unlimited; it is just a case of progressing through collaboration, further development and industry awareness. Exciting times lie ahead for Spall and his team, but there is still a lot of work to be done before the first autonomous competition next year at Silverstone. "For many of us it is extracurricular, so it is good fun and very rewarding as we are helping guide students into interesting and rewarding jobs, whilst helping the industry progress." 

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