The University of Michigan solar car team raced under challenging conditions at the American Solar Challenge, placing second on July 22 after a nine-day, 1,700-mile race along the Oregon National Historic Trail.
The team crossed the finish line 16 minutes after Australian university Western Sydney claimed first place in the 38-hour race, taking second place. According to Engineering sophomore Matthew Foutter, a first-year race team member, it was one of the closest races in the event’s history.
The members of the solar car race team devoted their summer to prepare for the American Solar Challenge, a competition they attend every other year. The team raced a model called Novum, which was originally built for the 2017 World Solar Challenge. Novum is about three feet wide, barely reaching 3.5 inches off the ground. As the team’s smallest and most aerodynamic car yet, Foutter said, Novum shows the University’s standard for thinking differently.
“It was certainly the most aerodynamic in the field,” Foutter said.
Much of the summer was focused on modifying the car to meet regulations set by the American Solar Challenge, which required the team to build a new canopy and supplementary array and add several safety features. According to Engineering senior Noah Bearman, team members worked from 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week to prepare for the race.
The team even drove their solar car to the actual race route, traveling from Omaha, Nebraska to Bend, Oregon, in mid-June to simulate the race. This was to prevent any surprises, Bearman said.
“We encountered a lot of problems, which we fixed in time for the race,” Bearman said. “If you’re going to have problems, make them during practice and not the race.”
The solar car drivers woke up at 4 a.m. to arrive for their 6 a.m. training slot at the Chelsea Proving Grounds. With only a small foam pad on the seat for cushioning, the car is not designed for comfort, Foutter said. As one of the two main drivers, Foutter was only allowed behind the wheel for a maximum of six hours a day during the race.
"There are times where you feel extremely focused on everything around you, because there's the car that moves quickly and at any moment, if you're not prepared, that can cause a crash,” Foutter said. “We're proud to say that Novum is one of the first cars in our line to not have crashed."
The team faced a few challenges that resulted in delays along the race course. The race took place in incredibly hot conditions, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees, including inside the solar car itself. According to Bearman, it took a lot of strain on the electrical system of the car. The Rocky Mountains terrain was also more rugged than what the team was accustomed to.
“Although the outcome was not what we wanted or what we expected, we learned a lot, and we’re ready to race again,” Bearman said.
This year’s team of 14 members was almost entirely made up of first-year students, according to Bearman.
“We're very lucky to have an incredibly smart and talented race crew,” Bearman said. “They were very young historically speaking, possibly the youngest solar car race crew ever. We spent a lot of time making mistakes and growing from them.”
The solar car team is already designing a new model for the 2019 World Solar Challenge. As a member of the aerodynamics division, Foutter has already begun sketches for the design of the new car.
"The regulations between last year and the coming year have changed very little,” Foutter said. “There's an incentive for us to continue with a similar design. Last year's design worked very well."
Since the entirely student-run organization was established in 1990, Michigan Solar Car has won the American Solar Challenge nine times. In an email interview with The Daily, LSA junior Vignesh Jagathese emphasized the importance of reflecting on past races as the team prepares for the 2019 World Solar Challenge in Australia.
“One of the best things about being on a team that's been around for nearly 30 years is the heavy amount of knowledge that is transferred to the following years, and we intend to continue that,” Jagathese wrote.