Blue Comet: A Human Powered Vehicle; Pedalling from the past for a sustainable future: A study on the previous designs of the bicycle to adapt them to today’s climate needs.

Davis, Samantha, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Smith, Natasha, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

I was part of a team of twelve fourth year mechanical engineering students working to design and build a human powered vehicle to compete in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Human Powered Vehicle Challenge (HPVC) as part of their yearly E-Fests. Knowing this was the project I would be actively working on with my senior class, I used this as the technical topic of my undergraduate thesis project. But while I knew my technical part, I still needed to find the STS portion of my project. To start on that, I looked into the advantages human powered vehicles could introduce to society if they were implemented as a standard means of transportation. From this, I landed on the ecological benefits to the planets if they replace cars and the physiological benefits to the riders by biking to work and other places instead of driving. The STS topic is important because it gives a reason and motivation for the technical project to be put to major use.
The goal of my capstone class was to fully design and build a competitive human powered vehicle for ASME’s HPVC. HPVC strives to inspire engineering students to design and build means of transportation other than cars, to consider the ecological impacts cars have on the environment, and to come up with a greener alternative. The sponsors of the competition also want engineers to think of the economic factors and, thus, require the students to submit a budget of their team’s expenses to build the vehicle. My team designed a semi-recumbent, tadpole trike with an adjustable crank set so people of different heights and leg lengths can ride on it. It has a partial fairing to help reduce drag and improve aerodynamics. The distinction of a tadpole trike is that it has two wheels in the front and one wheel in the back. We were in the process of building our bike when, unfortunately, the project was interrupted by the publicised outbreak of Covid-19 and the closure of all university buildings. We had finished welding the frame together and had the seat attached prior to the closure and our next step was to finish the steering and attach the drivetrain components, after which we would have begun test riding. The team completed our class with a full design for a human powered vehicle and maintained our budget of under six thousand for all of the components and material of the bike. Our advisor hopes our project will be a good starting point for next years students to begin their own design.
Having decided that I was using my capstone project of designing and building a human powered vehicle as the technical portion of my thesis project, I spent time determining how the vehicle we were designing could help solve a sociotechnical problem in the world. By looking at how human powered vehicles can benefit society, I settled on the ecological and physiological benefits to the environment and individuals. The main considerations were that riding a human powered vehicle as opposed to driving cars reduces the total amount of CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere. Riding a bike to work as opposed to driving also increases physical activity in the individual, which can lead to a longer lifespan. I looked at the history of the bicycle and how it evolved to what we ride today and discovered that, for a vehicle to persist, it must meet multiple needs, not just one. The flexible designs are often the most persistent and most successful.
By doing both a technical project and an STS research project, I learned to look at both the technological benefits of inventions and the societal impacts they can have. By looking at the societal effects of my project of a human powered vehicle, I was able to look at what would make the technological advance worthwhile or if it should be discarded while still a draft. Having done a technical project, I got hands on engineering experience in design and in manufacturing. Altogether, by doing both projects rather than either alone, I learned about the manufacturing progress and the struggles that come from bringing a design into fabrication and learned about the need to know a reason to support a design and manufacture it.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Human Powered Vehicle, CO2 emissions, Sustainable, Adapt

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Natasha Smith
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members:
Sungwoo Cho, Samantha Davis, Matt Evanko, Yongyi Jiang, Nick Johnson, Thomas Lee, Brian Lembo, Kevin Meyers, Ian O’Donnell, Dana Poon, Geoff Shellady, Chris Wilks, Pat Wongwiset

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