Palos Verdes High School Graduate-led Team Builds Electric Car
Between the football field and the gym at Palos Verdes High School is a nondescript classroom, the former metal shop, where students create high tech products that have competed with devices made by aerospace giants like Northrop Grumman and universities like MIT, CalTech and Stanford. Boldly named the Palos Verdes Institute of Technology, it is the school’s engineering laboratory.
By Nissen Davis
Guided by Graham Robertson, California State Science Fair Teacher of the Year in 2004, the class achieved national fame when its robotics team, the PV Road Warriors, was informed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Office), the research arm of the Department of Defense, that they were the only high school in the finals of the 2004 National Qualifying Event for DARPA’s Grand Challenge in Fontana, California. This was the first long distance competition for driverless cars in the world, a 150-mile field test of fully autonomous ground vehicles in the Mojave Desert to be held on March 13, 2004.
Aimed at advancing robotics technology for future military use in order to save human lives, the DOD-sponsored event had a purse of one million dollars to whomever could finish the fastest in ten hours or less. With the exception of PVHS, the rest of the teams were from major universities and high technology companies.
PVHS’s 2004 Acura MDX, dubbed Doom Buggy, completed three mandatory runs, navigating obstacles in the infield of the Fontana Speedway, and clearly demonstrating that the students had successfully programmed the MDX to navigate using GPS and avoid obstacles using a Lidar scanner. PVHS had just reopened, so the oldest students were sophomores, and PVHS qualified in the number 10 pole position out of 20 finalists.
Graham is particularly proud of the headline in the Los Angeles Times that read ”Caltech and PV High Make it Out of the Starting Gate.” However due to the demanding route, no team completed the race. “The Doom Buggy lost GPS at the start, and hit the barrier in front of the international press, so we were featured in the national news!” Graham recalls.
The team was sponsored by Power Acura of South Bay, American Honda, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Tonerland.com, Analog Devices, Black Fin, Gorilla Data Gear, NovAtel, Customized Vehicles, Infinity Micro, AIAA, and IEEE, as well as the local communities of Rolling Hills and Palos Verdes Estates. The students really enjoyed presenting to organizations in PV, and many local people gave generous support.
Graham recalls that the first PVIT project was in 1987 when students built robots with the aid of Heath kits and large floppy discs. When the school became an intermediate school in 1990 PVIT went into hibernation, re-emerging when it became a high school again in 2002.
“A friend of mine donated some oscilloscopes to anybody who would take out a ham radio operator’s license and PVIT got its second start,” he recalls. “Then came the DARPA Grand Challenge. I put out a flyer and 50 people – parents and students – showed up at the library. Some of the parents had aerospace project experience so we started out with very informed mentors, some with machine shops or computer aided design capabilities. Honda gave us an Acura MDX and EMC in Kentucky installed a handicap driving system with quadruple redundant controllers to make it safe on the highway.
“Nobody had ever built a full robotic car, with no radio control guidance, and we pulled all-nighters, with some students sleeping in the Faculty Lounge. The car teams were fueled by parents doing Krispy Kreme and In ’n Out runs. Students made sure that our car had by far the best strobes and alarm sounds in the challenge, and drew a crowd on each test run,” Graham reminisces.
“One student told me that he was not good at physics, yet he became our tech liaison with Darpa, and graduated from the Air Force Academy. Our brilliant programmers went on to USC, MIT, Harvard and Stanford. In the 2005 event, we qualified first out of 80 teams in the first cut, but did not qualify for the finals. Our students, including some team members from Peninsula High and Beverly Hills High, were fearless in tackling a daunting challenge!”
Today, thanks to a grant from BP, PVIT is building a hybrid-electric urban vehicle designed and built by Daniel Doke and his team that will serve as both a research test bed and a learning laboratory for student-led explorations of renewable energy technology, according to Robertson.
This project complements the school’s academic engineering program that utilizes the national Project Lead the Way® curriculum and it is driven by technically motivated students and volunteer parent mentors and teachers
The project illustrates and motivates companion studies in PVHS Science Research, Environmental Science, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Law, and Government curricula, serving a broad base of technical and societal interests, Graham comments.
“Palos Verdes High School has over four years of accomplishment in student-led solar and biofuels research, with special emphasis on the engineering, science, and economic foundation needed for this to become a reality. We understand that renewable energy is an imperative of our time, and we have stepped up to the challenge of preparing the next generation of leaders to meet this most pressing of national priorities.
“Our approach represents a strong partnership between students, teachers, the school district, and parent volunteers. As Pete Marshall, the PVIT lead parent, explained, “PVIT exposes students to real technology, to the process of engineering, to the fact that things don’t actually work out first time the way that a lot of pre-prepared classroom demonstrations do. It teaches imagination, ingenuity, and perseverance — and a lot about how to work as a team, especially when things get stressful. Students see the joy of engineering; that it’s an exciting, creative, and — yes — a fun thing to do, and, perhaps, that it’s worth thinking about as a career.’
Team leader Daniel Doke recalls that when he first designed the electric car he thought the project would take 120 hours. Today he says it has taken 1,200 – and is not yet complete. But he can be proud of the fact that everything in the car was designed and built by his team, including the regenerative braking system.
“Our vehicle design meets the modest requirements defined for a “Neighborhood Electric Vehicle” (NEV1), while incorporating regenerative braking, a storage compartment, and a data acquisition system that interrogates sensors and instrumentation to record energy flow, battery state of charge, and vehicle performance,“ says Doke.
Originally, the design called for biodiesel-based series hybrid drive and a stationary array of solar cells mounted above the vehicle’s roof, but prototype testing in the first year demonstrated that solar on the car produced too little power, so the solar and biofuel research were split off into separate projects.
The electric car will make its public debut at the 19th annual Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance at the Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes on Sunday, September 18. Also on display will be Doke’s stunning blue Ford F-150 pickup truck that he and his friends have tricked out with an awesome array of electronics, including nine speakers, thanks to a grant from Sony. Ironically, Doke is supposed to be checking into his dorm at the University of Santa Clara that day, but his heart will be with his team as they proudly show off his vision. Graham will write a note to the University so that – hopefully – Daniel Doke can attend the Concours.
For complete information on this year’s Palos Verdes Concours, to purchase tickets in advance and to check out the new Concours Live On L ine Auction visit pvconcours.com.