Engineering students at University of Pittsburgh, until recently, were offered little hands-on experience with electric vehicles of any type. So last year, when then-junior Nick Genco saw an opportunity for a club at Pitt dedicated to racing electric boats in the Promoting Electric Propulsion (PEP) for Small Craft competition held by the American Society of Naval Engineers, he jumped in. That was the summer of 2021. The race was the following May. Plenty of time, right?
“I didn’t grow up boating. I played basketball in high school,” Genco says. “I really knew nothing about boating or the effects of getting on a plane or anything like that. As I got more into the actual boating aspects, I found out there was a lot to learn.”
Pittsburgh Electric Propulsion, the name chosen for the university sponsored student design team, now includes more than 40 undergraduates studying 10 different disciplines of engineering as well as finance, economics, marketing, computer science and business information systems. With the university still in Covid lockdowns, however, they couldn’t meet to actually build a boat until late October. For trim and displacement measurements, they carried their fully rigged 13-foot Zodiac Milpro ERB400 inflatable up infamous Cardiac Hill to the nearest warm water — Pitt’s indoor swimming pool.
Their electric motor, built into a 1968 Mercury Thunderbolt 500 outboard shell, went untested until race day. Even plagued with during-race repairs jury-rigged by the boat’s skipper, Luke Sowinski, the club’s Cathy — named for the Cathedral of Learning building on campus — still managed 11 mph and third place in a fleet of seven entries competing on Pohick Bay, off the Potomac River outside of Washington D.C.
As expected with many startups, it was a feat just to make it to the race largely due to raising funds. “There’s somewhat of a disconnect between the business school and engineering school when it comes to professional development. I was excited to gain experience managing a project in an industry where I had no familiarity,” says Chris Ferrighetto, Pittsburgh Electric Propulsion’s business manager. “Nick [Genco] helped me learn about batteries until I really understood what I was talking about, and I helped Nick with speaking tactics: how to project information the best way possible, and how to make sure we’re going about asking the right questions as well as answering questions the right way.”
That polished approach led to funding from military and commercial boatbuilders Zodiac Milpro International and United States Marine, Inc., as well as high-voltage switching manufacturer Rincon Power and American Society of Naval Engineers. The team also garnered immeasurable assistance from their two faculty advisors, Dr. Robert Kerestes and Dr. Tony Kerzmann.
With this past summer spent learning about both boats and electric motors — Nick interned with electric outboard pioneer Flux Marine — the team is back into full swing, and anticipating a more refined and better tested entry for this year’s race scheduled in June. “Our goal is to have Cathy hit a peak speed of 30 miles per hour by the end of the [Fall 2022] semester, and go 20 miles an hour for 10 miles,” Genco says.
Genco says important lessons came from struggles and snafus. One example was finding, on short notice, someone meeting the university’s safety requirements to spot-weld all 6000 individual connections within 500 battery cells to create their home-brewed battery pack. “I found that everything that could have gone wrong, at some point did,” Genco says. “I did say the biggest engineering takeaway I have from this process is that Murphy’s Law always needs to be accounted for.”
The team learned business and life lessons, as well. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” Genco says. “We had a lot of team members say, ‘Oh, I can’t really help because I don’t have the experience. I don’t know anything about this,” Genco says. “I said, ‘We’re doing this to learn, and if we mess up, we mess up.’ We have to be safe obviously, but if it doesn’t run as well as we want it to, so what? We’re going to try, and do the best that we can do. This project really helped me eliminate that fear and be willing into bet on myself, and our team, and just take the chance.”
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“We had an idea how we want things to go,” Ferrighetto adds, more about the design team than the boat or the race. “We kept that longterm perspective and worked towards those goals each and every single day, trying to build that culture early on. We ultimately want to make this program sustainable after Nick and I graduate.”
While funding remains challenging, Cathy seems to be right on track for June. As of this writing, Pitt Electric Propulsion recently partnered with hydroplane racer Thomas Schlarb to campaign 70 mph electric-powered C-Stock hydroplanes. The first race is in June. Plenty of time, right?