Team from Cal State Northridge Triumphs at the ASME HPVC West Competition

California State University, Northridge’s vehicle placed first overall and first in the design, innovation and women’s speed categories at the ASME Human Powered Vehicle Challenge (HPVC) West competition, which was held in Santa Clara, Calif., in April. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Montoya)

In a surprise turn of events, a student team from California State University, Northridge took top honors at the Human Powered Vehicle Challenge (HPVC) West event last month, overtaking perennial HPVC heavyweights including Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

Thirty-two student teams battled it out during the three-day ASME competition, which was sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley Section and held at three locations in Santa Clara, Calif. The design event was held on April 22 at Santa Clara University, and the male and female drag races were held the following day at San Jose State University. The final event, a two-and-a-half hour endurance race, took place April 24 at the Santa Clara Valley Fairgrounds.

In addition to placing first in the overall competition, Cal State Northridge’s entry took first place in the design, innovation and women’s speed race categories, as well as second place in the men’s speed race and third place in the endurance event. Other big winners at this year’s HPVC West included the team from the University of Akron, which placed second overall and first in the men’s speed category, and Utah State University, which placed third overall, first in the endurance race and second in the innovation category.

Members of the Cal State Northridge team pose with the various awards they collected at the event. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Montoya)

Cal State Northridge’s near-domination of this year’s HPVC West may have been unexpected but it was well earned, according to HPVC West head judge Will Hilgenberg, who was impressed with the team’s entry, a three-wheeled trike with a full fairing.

“Northridge had a very well-produced bike,” said Hilgenberg, a mechanical design engineer for Praxisworks, a manufacturer of bicycle components. “The fairing was very good quality carbon fiber construction. So they spent the time on the molds and they spent the time in all the initial prep to get it right, which is not an easy thing to do. They built a very clean bike. They kept it simple. Their design was much more cleanly executed than the others were. And it showed in the events, too. It always comes down to again how well you can actually execute your design. If it’s a simple design that you can build well and quickly in order to get testing done, then you will do well in the competition.”

The Cal State Northridge team’s success at the competition can also be attributed to the fact that the team members took the time to attend a series of web-based HPVC tutoring seminars, which were conducted by Wesley Rooney, who has served as a design judge for the program for the past 12 years. The seminars highlight what the judges look for when evaluating each vehicle’s design and provide tips on how to build a robust human powered vehicle. The tutoring seminars seemed to pay off for the teams that attended them, Hilgenberg observed, noting that all three of the overall winners attended the seminars.

The University of Akron team placed second overall and first in the men’s speed category at the 2016 HPVC West event. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Montoya)

In addition to giving the students an opportunity to demonstrate their design skills, each year the HPVC competitions also provide a supportive community for the students who participate. Members of the team from Delhi Technological University in India experienced this first-hand this year when they arrived in California with a damaged vehicle and no tools to fix it. Several other teams quickly stepped forward to help. The Arizona State University lent the team the tools they needed to fix the vehicle, while Rose Hulman provided the seat belt, so the DTU team could meet the competition’s safety guidelines. Colorado State University provided transportation for the team to and from the event site. A member of the Cal Poly Pomona team, Diane Amon, even volunteered to serve as the team’s driver for the women’s drag race event, after learning that the team’s female driver wasn’t able to secure a visa to attend the competition. Finding herself physically unable to maneuver the vehicle, however, Amon walked the bicycle one and a half miles to the finish line, as she was applauded and cheered on by the other competitors.

This type of generosity of spirit is deeply entrenched in the HPVC program, Hilgenberg said. “It’s very indicative of the welcoming, community aspect of the Human Powered Vehicle Competition,” he said. “It’s very evident every year when there’s one or two teams that need help. As a competitor in the past, I’ve actually borrowed welding equipment overnight — $2,000 to $3,000 pieces of equipment — from a competitor to fix our vehicle that we broke. It’s a natural part of this competition.”

Will Hilgenberg (right), head judge for the HPVC West competition, congratulates a member of the University of Akron team during the presentation of awards at HPVC West. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Montoya)

The HPVC program also provides students with practical experience that is often lacking in today’s engineering curricula, Rooney added. In today’s harsh economic climate, many universities try to save money by cutting extra-curricular engineering projects from their programs and offering engineering programs that are purely theoretical, he said.

“The trouble is, I’m on the other side of things now,” said Rooney, a mechanical design department manager at Essai, an engineering and manufacturing firm. “I’m now management. I’m hiring these students and I can tell you it’s pretty common for engineering students who’ve just gotten a degree to really not be capable of a lot of practical daily things. From an industry hiring standpoint, the engineering degree is proof that you’ve got the background training. But you’re not really an engineer until you’ve got the experience.”

ASME’s Human Powered Vehicle Program is one way students can acquire this practical experience, Rooney said. “There are a number of great events out there, like Formula SAE or Formula Baja,” he said. “But to compete well in those events, you have to have a budget of $40,000 or more. Technically, you have to have a huge team of 30-some odd students. And unless you have tons of university support from an infrastructure point of view and lots of prior event experience, there is basically no chance you’re going to do well at all.

Design judge Wesley Rooney (foreground, right) at the 2016 HPVC West competition. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Rooney)

“I feel it is the social injustice that ASME can help correct through this event,” Rooney continued. “What the HPVC does is, it basically offers a reasonable work load for small teams of students who have full-time jobs, little to no outside funding, and you don’t have to have a fancy support infrastructure. You can theoretically do this in your garage if you have to. And that’s what makes it a universally appealing, international event.”

To see the complete list of winners at the HPVC West event, visit the Human Powered Vehicle Challenge Community page on To learn more about the ASME Human Powered Vehicle Competition program, click here.