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Honda-Ohio State Partnership Steers Education, Industry Advantages

In just its first year, Ohio State’s Supermileage student team developed and constructed a single-person vehicle with a fuel-efficiency of 96 mpg. The second year, it more than doubled to 256 mpg. Now in its third year, the team aspires to exceed 500 — maybe even 700 — mpg.

To drive that impressive progress, the students turn toward some experts: the team at Honda R&D Americas Inc. 

“Due to our team's focus on engine modifications this year, we have sought a Supermileage team co-captain Jackie Karl-DeFrain and engine team lead Connor Yarcheck update Dan Nagashima, a Honda R&D Americas principal engineer, on the changes they’ve made to their single-person, fuel-efficient vehicle. (Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons) second opinion from members of Honda's engine research department,” says Supermileage team co-captain Jackie Karl-DeFrain, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and Chinese. “We’re explaining what we’re doing, and they’re providing feedback on it.”

The 18-member Supermileage team isn’t Honda’s first partnership with Ohio State, by far.

“Honda and Ohio State have established a long and successful history of partnership and collaboration spanning almost 30 years,” says Mike Wiseman, Honda’s co-director of the Honda-Ohio State Partnership. “A significant result of this partnership was the Ohio State Transportation Research Endowment Program, supporting transportation-related education, research and Ohio State chaired professorships.”

“This endowment is a critical,” says Joanna Pinkerton, Ohio State’s co-director of the partnership, “for projects from seeding innovative research to helping establish major joint venture capital investments for mobility infrastructure. The Supermileage team, along with many other teams on campus, also receives these endowment funds. The students then learn the skills to capitalize on this initial investment and work with other industry partners, such as Honda R&D Americas and Ometek, a Columbus custom metal fabricator, in this case, to ensure they have the working capital to fuel their dreams.”

The partnership advanced significantly in 1988 following Honda’s acquisition of the Transportation Research Center Inc. and the university’s establishment of the center as a non-profit corporation to manage and operate it as an independent proving ground on Honda’s behalf. This year, the Honda-Ohio State Partnership is taking a new direction with a sharpened focus on innovations in the mobility industry. It matches the university’s efforts to bring smarter transportation solutions to communities in the Buckeye state and, eventually, around the world, with a strong start as the lead researcher for Smart Columbus.

At Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research, the Supermileage team came to the attention of Honda engineers.

“We noticed the extensive commitment the students had for motorsports, and the passion the students displayed for vehicles and powertrains was inspiring,” says Dan Nagashima, a Honda R&D Americas principal engineer based in Raymond, Ohio. “We saw it as an opportunity to partner with a great academic institution and create awareness about the work we do here in Central Ohio at Honda.”

Students grow their engineering design and project management skills by applying learned classroom theories in Supermileage, an engineering design competition organized by SAE International, an association of engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial vehicle industries.

At last year’s competition in Marshall, Mich., the Ohio State team had one of the most reliable vehicles and completed four successful runs with a ranking of 11 out of 17 vehicles. This year’s SAE Supermileage competition is June 8-9 in Michigan.

From Honda’s engineering expertise, the students receive knowledge they can use for the competition and put into context for real world vehicle development: 

  • Nagashima is the engineering manager of vehicle integration; overseeing emissions, fuel economy, sensor/actuator durability, and engine system control design and calibration. He offers technical advice primarily from system control and fuel economy perspectives.
  • Jack Frieders, an Ohio State mechanical engineering alumnus, has extensive experience in emissions and fuel economy as well as engine test equipment and facility technology. A vehicle-integration group member with Nagashima, Frieders has provided the Supermileage team with feedback for engine modifications.
  • And Joe Wiford of human resources has helped coordinate Ohio State-Honda events, offering students a glimpse inside Honda R&D’s opportunities as students and as potential recruits.

The 18-member Supermileage team last year used a small Briggs & Stratton engine -- required by the Supermileage competition -- that had 206 cc. The students plan to reduce this displacement by roughly a third to limit power output and reduce overall engine friction, Karl-DeFrain says, not wanting to give away her team’s specifics.

“Last fall Honda provided us with one of its motorcycle engines that is a similar size for our end goals. We can look at that and take it apart to better understand how to modify our existing engine,” Karl-DeFrain says. “What we are doing is minimizing the horsepower of the engine, because we don’t need a lot of power, and we want to limit the fuel consumption.”

The students built the Supermileage vehicle on an aluminum chassis that weighs roughly 50 pounds less than other leading teams in the competition. It has a carbon fiber seat and a steering wheel operated by a push-pull cable.

“Our methodology for running on the track is burn and coast,” explains Karl-DeFrain, who drives the car in the competition. “We bring the vehicle up to 25 mph, cut the engine, coast down to 5 mph and then repeat the process. So we’re averaging about 15 mph, which gave us the lowest power usage.”

This year, the team aims to build a fairing, reduce the drag in the drive train and make further engine and chassis modifications.

The factors affecting fuel efficiency are important for students to learn, Nagashima says, in light of the auto industry’s focus on improving fuel efficiency in the last 10 years. And the demands to increase fuel economy continue to grow.

“It’s not just the automobile industry,” Nagashima elaborates, “but a trend you will see in variety of similar applications like motorsports, locomotives and airplanes, not to mention stationary energy generation and energy conservation in buildings. The Supermileage competition is great, in that it encourages critical thinking and innovation that can benefit energy efficiency in a variety of real-world applications.”

Honda is not only helping prepare future engineers for careers in the transportation industry but also providing continuous professional development for its own employees through collaborations with Ohio State, Wiseman says.

“Partnerships with academia differ from traditional relationships within the industry in that we have the opportunity to look at more fundamental, and at times long range, solutions to our needs, whether those needs are in engineering or business,” Wiseman says. 

“Our long-standing partnership with Honda is an example we seek to replicate quite often at the university,” Pinkerton adds. “Valuable input from associates, managers and executives in industry can have an incredible impact on students’ understanding of the need to apply their acquired knowledge post-graduation. The process of working on scoping of research and future investment with corporate partners keeps us focused on having the most impact possible as a land-grant institution serving the economy of our state.”


Companion story:

In the driver’s seat

When Jackie Karl-DeFrain enrolled at Ohio State, she already knew she was interested in engineering — and she didn’t hesitate to try something completely new.

“I never got to work with my hands growing up,” says the junior from Maumee, Ohio. “Working on cars or in the shop wasn't an experience I had as a kid.  Feeling like I was missing out on that experience, I thought, ‘Let’s go do it now.’”

Indeed, Karl-DeFrain has immersed herself in her studies as well as leading the student Supermileage team; she even drives the vehicle in the competitions.

Beyond the team, Karl-DeFrain has another connection with Honda R&D: She had a co-op with an engine research department there last summer and is hoping to do so again this summer.

“One project allowed me to design a test stand for improved test procedures, another worked with control systems and developing better testing instruments, and a group of three individual projects focused on analyzing customer initial quality study data and determining countermeasures,” Karl-DeFrain says. She also learned about test design, data acquisition and presentation of results.

“Overall, this experience gave me a much better idea of how automotive companies function,” she says.

“The coolest part for me was seeing challenges that we had faced on our Supermileage team, coming to Honda and learning about different solutions, and then going back and being able to apply it,” Karl-DeFrain says. “Supermileage gave me some context for what I learned during my co-op and continues to allow me to apply what I have learned.

“I’d really like to ultimately work in the auto industry with a sustainability focus,” she says. “That’s what I like about Supermileage, is that effort toward sustainability and green solutions.”