Solar car team going ‘down under’ for race

By Stephanie Shenouda, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 2, 2013

One hundred team members. Seven national championship titles. Five top-three world championship finishes. This Sunday, the University Solar Car Team is competing in the World Solar Car Challenge, and they’re hoping this will be their year.

After spending the last two years building and designing Generation, the team’s latest car, several members have traveled to the Australian outback, where they’ll compete with teams from around the world in a 1,800-mile race to the finish and the title of world solar-car champion.

Over the course of four days, competitors from 40 schools and 23 countries will race from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then charge their cars until 7 a.m. the next morning for the next day of racing.

LSA junior Ian Sullivan, the team’s business director, spoke to The Michigan Daily from Arizona, where he was currently attending a sponsorship conference. He said he learned at the conference how to effectively work with companies to gain resources for the coming year.

“We’re all definitely really excited about Sunday’s race,” Sullivan said. “Though we’re proud to consistently be in the top, this is our best chance ever to win, and that’s always our goal, so we feel like we just need to go in and take it.”

Sullivan noted a rule change this year that mandates that each car have four wheels instead of three, which will make this year’s car more efficient and competitive. He said the team is always working on improving technology and sustainability, but this has probably been the most major change their design has undergone.

Engineering and Business junior James Kauney, a third-year team member, is a part of the leadership committee where he oversees timelines, budgets and recruiting.

“I definitely fell in love with Solar Car because of what a real-world project it is,” Kauney said. “It’s inherently creative and multidisciplinary, and we have all types of engineers and even LSA and Ross kids that we’re able to bring in collaborate with, so there’s always something going on and there’s always something to learn from someone.”

Kauney echoed his teammates’ sentiments about winning, but says this week’s race is especially important to him because he’s been working on the car’s design from the beginning.

“When you’re working 20 hours a week on this one project all year, it’s definitely a lot of work, but you’re all doing it together,” Kauney said. “There’s definitely camaraderie that comes into it, and you want to do your best and see the car do its best for the University, for yourself, and for everyone else.”

While dedication and high rankings may have proven to be staples of the Solar Car Team, Kauney said the one thing that has changed this year is the car’s name.

“Every other car we’ve designed has had the letters UM somewhere in it, but we decided to switch it up this year and go with something completely different, deciding on ‘Generation,’ ” he said. “It’s a tribute to everything we’re a part of, the 1,200 alumni of the group, and the 12 car cycles.”

Engineering sophomore Connor O’Brien, a second-year member, explained that after the race, the team will have time to re-group and experiment, which he enjoys.

“With everything already done for Sunday’s race, we’ve kind of surpassed the climax of the season and will have time to restructure and rebuild as a team, which I’m really looking forward to,” O’Brien said. “Now we’ll have time to try out different things and reorganize our workspace, which will be nice.”

As an engineer, O’Brien said the skills he has learned on the team are very different from those he learns in the classroom.

“The things we learn at Solar Car don’t reinforce the things I’m learning in my classes because they’re different aspects of engineering, but I like that it broadens my scope and skill set,” he said.

He added that the most important part of racing strategy is to “expect the unexpected.” He recalled a 2011 race where the course involved driving through unanticipated smoke due to brush fires, which resulted in an emergency stop and threw off their race strategy completely.

“The nicest part about this year is how there haven’t been any major engineering problems with the car,” O’Brien said.

For O’Brien, Solar Car is more about being a part of something big.

“Being a part of our team means you’re a necessary part of one of the best engineering projects in the world,” he said. “We’re kind of the poster child of the College of Engineering, and we get a lot of exposure, and we take a lot of pride and caution in making sure that everything we do is deserving of that title.”