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Far From a Lemon: Inside Deep Orange 9

The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) in South Carolina has a tall order: Develop the next generation of automotive engineers. Alongside more than 20 industry partners, CU-ICAR provides equipment, technology and expertise to Clemson graduate students working on Deep Orange projects.

What exactly is Deep Orange? Designed as “an educational program for systems integration and accelerated vehicle prototyping,” it gives engineers-in-training the opportunity to fully develop vehicles from concept and design to prototyping and production. Students are also given an environmental, social or economic challenge—because Deep Orange’s mission is to push innovation past its limits. 

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The Assignment

The team of 18 CU-ICAR students were tasked with two unique challenges: making small passenger cars more appealing and improving fuel economy while reducing emissions. Simple. Their third challenge was personal. The students wanted to build something they loved, so they went in a direction that checked all their boxes: rallycross.

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Getting Started

“We really struggled with where and how to start,” says George Wheeler, the team lead for Deep Orange 9. “Race teams want to keep a lot of what their cars are capable of as secret as possible. We spent a lot of time watching rallycross races, doing math and doing simulations to figure out what kind of performance aspects we needed.”

With the goal of building a racecar that could be competitive on an actual rallycross course, the team put performance parameters in place. This Honda-Civic inspired build had to: go 0-60 mph in 2 seconds, unleash 600 horsepower, perform 4-wheel steering and reduce emissions by 30% compared to current racecars.  

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Unlikely Inspiration

“We drew inspiration from all forms of motorsports and passenger cars,” adds Angel Rivera, the vehicle integration lead. “For example, Formula 1 had a more advanced hybrid thought process than rallycross did at the time. We also looked at what kind of battery to use, and as it turns out, buses have it pretty down pat.”

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Fail Forward

“Every part we put in the car, we designed in CAD first. We built the car [from those parts] in CAD, and made sure all the systems worked first,” says Wheeler. “There was a lot of trial and error. We’d come up with performance targets, and then we’d come up with ideas to get there. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t.

As team lead, Wheeler was responsible for overseeing the performance targets, design process and parts integration. He had to make sure that everything was done according to a strict and logical schedule—like installing the roll cage before the engine.

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A Vision Realized

After pouring thousands of hours of time and energy into the two-year long project, the CU-ICAR team finally got to unveil Deep Orange 9 at a rallycross event at Clemson University alongside famous racers Andrew Comrie-Picard and James Robinson. The fanfare was nice. But if there was one thing that really made these future engineers proud, it was seeing Deep Orange 9 run its own laps out on the autocross course. It worked.

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