While Google's robotic cars have stolen the headlines, last week nine student-built solar-powered vehicles made their way across the country in an epic, multi-day race. These cars weren’t built for speed, but they're pioneering tech that might soon revolutionize commercial cars.
We took an inside look at the biannual American Solar Challenge to see what it takes to drive one of these machines 1,700 miles across America in fewer than 10 days. Turns out, it's a pretty wild ride.
Football. Frat parties. Solar car design? It sounds like an idea proposed by an environmentally-conscious professor, but the college competition owes its existence to General Motors. After winning the world’s first solar car race in 1990, GM initiated Sunrayce USA (which later became the American Solar Challenge).
“There’s a world of college engineering design competitions,” says Gail Lueck, the event coordinator and a former participant, “But this one’s unique because team members come from multidisciplinary backgrounds.” Groups are tasked with fundraising, planning, design, construction, and repairs. Most teammates spend at least a year learning the ropes.
Iowa State is racing its twelfth solar model, the Phaeton, which cost around $300,000. Funding comes from the university and companies that donate materials and capital, but Alec Carpenter from West Michigan says, “knowledge comes from what we learn at school.” He’s optimistic about the future of solar-powered transport. “When we display, we frequently hear people say they’d love to own a solar car you could drive for free.”
Although designs vary, cars adhere to rigorous standards. Vehicles can’t be larger than 5-meters long, 1.8-meters high, and 1.8-meters wide. If a team wants to overtake another, it must coordinate passing via radio and headlights. As the day wanes, batteries deplete, and solar-powered cars can’t charge after sunset. Every night, teams stop at designated checkpoints, which breaks up the 1,700-mile journey from Austin to Minneapolis.
Weather is the primary obstacle competitors face. Rain and cloud cover mean reduced solar power. On sunny days and flat roads, cars get up to 65 mph (some claim to have climbed to 105 mph), but cloudy weather at this year’s grand prix kept the fastest lap at 4.35 (by comparison, F1 cars have snagged 1:39).
University of Michigan won the first “sunrayce” and has dominated the solar scene ever since with seven national championships. The university’s solar program benefits from proximity to auto giants and sponsors like Siemens and Ford, but it still takes two years to create a winner. The team emphasizes “building an efficient vehicle with standards automakers can borrow.” New Tesla, Ford, and GM cars employ a battery similar to the lithium-ion one in Michigan’s ride.
The qualifying grand prix held at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas is the only time schools race side by side. During the multi-state competition, teams navigate public roads where speed limits, and traffic lights affect movement. Winners are determined by the overall time spent on the road getting from start to finish.
Do solar races signal changes in the mainstream auto marketplace? “Not really,” says Lueck, “These cars are made for solar races.” For the sake of efficiency, they lack creature comforts like A.C. and radio. When it comes to commercial solar vehicles, Lueck says, “It would make more sense to place solar panels on a house, then charge your car at home.” But energy-efficient transport is gaining traction, even in the racing industry. In 2014, Formula 1 introduced hybrid engines for the first time in history.