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On Track Learning

Lesson 2: Self-Propelled Car (Science)


Lab Activity: Students will design a self-propelled car

Teaser Activity: Auto manufacturers have to design vehicles for different performance characteristics or parameters (safety, economy, acceleration, endurance). Today’s lab gives you the chance to design a vehicle to compete to see which is fastest over a designated distance and which can travel the greatest distance in a given time.

Student expectations: With the materials provided, each group of students will design a self-propelled vehicle and demonstrate their design based upon distance and time

Teaser: Which category would your group prefer to win and why? Using the car designed by your group measure the distance traveled by the vehicle and time taken for a specific distance and then calculate the speed. Plan on at least 3 trials.

Student Worksheets

Name________________________ Vehicle design

Names of others in your lab group ____________________

  1. Design a vehicle. Before constructing the vehicle, draw a diagram and/or write a description of your design.
  2. List the materials used in your design:
  3. Record the results of your car
  4. What were the design characteristics of speed and endurance in vehicle designs?
  5. Describe what would be optimum car characteristics for you. How might it be achieved?


Name ________________________________ Quiz self-propelled cars

According to accident scene investigator, Rolin Barrett, “we have to be careful when we try to design a vehicle that is a best of all situations such as the fastest, covers the greatest distance, safest, etc. Because frequently the compromise will give a vehicle that will do none of these very well. So we want to focus on the area that is most important to us. If it happens to be speed or distance then we need to focus on one and not so much focus on the other.

  1. If you were going to focus your design on creating a vehicle that would travel the greatest distance, what are some design features you would include?
  2. If you were going to focus your design on creating a vehicle that would be the fastest over a short distance, what are some design features you would include?
  3. If you were to create your design again, what would you change and why?

Goal 1 The learner will design and conduct investigations to demonstrate an understanding of scientific inquiry.

  • 2.02 Use information systems to identify scientific needs, human needs or problems that are subject to technological solution.
  • 2.03 Evaluate technological designs for application of scientific principles, risk and benefits, constraints of design and consistent testing protocols.
  • 4.04 Describe the suitability of materials for use in technological design

Science Background information
Expert information in this section has been provided by:
Rolin E. Barrett, Jr., Ph.D., P.E.
Consulting Engineer and Accident Reconstruction Specialist
Barrett Engineering

Eric Klang, Ph.D.
Director, Undergraduate Program
Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
Faculty Advisory, Wolfpack Motorsports

Interviewer: How is energy used in a car?

Expert: Some of the energy may be used to heat or cool the interior of the vehicle by the air conditioner or the heater. S a little bit goes there. Some of the other energy is used in other ways such as electrical energy to operate systems within the car, power seats, radios, sunroof, windows, that kind of thing. Most of the energy is used to rotate the wheels.

Interviewer: The engine converts chemical energy into kinetic energy. Does the engine use energy during this process?

Expert: Yes. Some of the energy goes back into operating the mechanisms of the engine as well as the drive train. One other thing to consider is that when you’re driving and you come up to a stop sign or stoplight or simply want to slow down you take some of the energy of motion, the kinetic energy and convert that to heat energy using friction, the brakes. Some vehicles are designed to recoup some of the energy that would otherwise be lost during braking. These vehicles sometimes are said to have a regenerative feature. For example an electric vehicle upon braking may allow the motors to operate as generators and to take some of that energy of motion and put it back to the energy storage device – the battery. This is done in some of the newer vehicles, hybrids and such to allow better economy.

Interviewer: What can be done to increase the efficiency of an engine? That is, how can we convert more of the chemical energy into kinetic energy?

Expert: Some vehicles may use an inner cooler to take heat out of the air to increase the density of the air charge into the engine. This improves efficiency. Other vehicles may use a super charger or turbo charger to extract some of the energy from the engine and place it into the form of better packing air for the combustion into the engine. In the case of the turbo charger, they’re specifically taking energy that would be lost through the tailpipe, through the heat of the engine, the exhaust leaving. They take this waste energy and put it back.

There’s another type of device which is similar to a turbo charger and sometimes called a scavenger. Slang terms. But this device is basically like half of a turbo charger with the shaft. And it takes some of that energy from the exhaust and mechanically returns it. We hear a lot of stores over the years about the miracle carburetor or miracle fuel injection system or some special engine that will somehow allow the vehicle to attain this wonderful mileage. Usually the stories tell of some vehicle that will get 300 miles to the gallon or something such as this. If someone could invent this they would be very wealthy, they would be very popular in society. The reality is there’s only so much air you can extract from our fuels. Gasoline only holds so much energy per gallon. The same is true with diesel fuel. They have a limited amount of energy. And engineers do strive to extract as much as possible. But there’s no great conspiracy to hide the use of energy.

Interviewer: Describe design factors that enhance speed versus design factors that enhance distance.

Expert: Dragsters may be fun but it’s hard to go to the beach or take your groceries home in them. So we know that design factors definitely will allow a vehicle to be fast or achieve great distance. And we can see that in cars currently available. A high performance sports car offers the potential for great speed. Family cars and vans offer better mileage. We have to be careful though when we strive to design something that is a mater of all situations because frequently the compromise will give a vehicle that will do none of these very well. So we want to focus on the areas that are important to us. If it happens to be speed or distance then we need to focus on one and not so much focus on the other.

Interviewer: Several types of fuel are available. One general distinction is the nature of the fuel – solid, liquid or gas. Please discus the pro’s and con’s of some examples.

Expert: Solid fuels are considered more stable than liquid fuels. Sold fuel vehicles have been produced. Examples include wood burning trains up until the nineteenth century and coal burning trains that were used later, well into the twentieth century. And there have been some experimental cars that used a very finely powdered coal. They powdered the coal to make it more than coal. And they were able to move it through the fuel system. But these have never achieved commercial success. We use gasoline because it’s fairly cheap. Additionally the infrastructure is in place for gasoline which is a huge savings. Look at going to hydrogen. The infrastructure is a real concern. We have hydrogen powered rockets by NASA has invested a significant amount of money to build the infrastructure to support these rockets. Somewhat simpler are solid propellant rockets. But solid fuels have drawbacks too. Not all solid fuels are more stable than common liquid fuels. For example black powder, which is a sulfur and potassium nitrate compound, was commonly used by cannons and some firearms up through the twenty-first century and is still in use in some specialized applications by militaries around the world. But black powder is definitely not as stable as gasoline. If I take some gasoline and shake it or hit it, I’m not going to have a problem. But if I hit a small pile of black powder with a hammer bad things can happen. Solid fuels are also more difficult to transport throughout the vehicle. The vehicle’s fuel storage, the gas tank, the fuel lines, fuel pump and carburetor/injectors form a fairly simple and dependable system of fuel distribution to the engine. Some engines had been built using powdered solid fuels, but they’re not in common use. Liquid fuels are just easier to use - - just much more convenient. It’s also a little hard to turn off that bottle rocket of a car at a stoplight. Once solid rockets are lit they tend to turn until the fuel is gone.


All students should develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry.

  • All students should develop an understanding of properties and changes of properties in matter, motions and forces and transfer of energy.
  • All students should develop abilities of technological design and understandings about science and technology.
  • All students should develop understanding of science and technology in society.
Classroom Time Required: 

45 minutes

Materials Need: 
  • Springs
  • Rubber bands
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Water bottles
  • Balsa wood
  • Wheels
  • Axles
  • Eye screws
  • Braided thin rope
  • Coping saw
  • Glue
  • Sanding block
  • Measuring tape
Supplemental Files: