University leads national solar car challenge at halfway point

By Giacomo Bologna, Managing Editor
Published July 16, 2012

The American Solar Challenge, a race across the country in solar-powered cars, made a stop in Ann Arbor on Monday where the University’s Solar Car Team led about 11 other university teams from around the country.

The team had a small break from the event as University alumni and former members of solar car teams met at the Junge Family Champions Center near the Big House for a small reception.

The race, which began in Rochester, N.Y., will end on Saturday in St. Paul, Minn. The University team leads the pack by three hours.

At 11:30 a.m., the team pulled into Ann Arbor relatively unscathed, but many other teams couldn’t say the same after a strong storm delayed and even damaged cars in the race yesterday.

LSA sophomore Noah Kaczor, a driver for the University team, held the reins during the storm and said he thought the University was the only team to make it through the inclement weather without stopping.

“We were pulling out of Erie (Pa.) and it was looking very ominous, and we knew that it would rain. It started raining and visibility was decreasing,” he said. “It started to let up a little bit, and then it just came down really hard.”

Kaczor noted that certain parts of the storm were particularly difficult to get through.

“I thought it was hailing for a couple minutes because it was so loud, and I could barely see anything. I could just make out the two lines,” he said. “It was kind of scary because I couldn’t really see that much.”

Despite the heavy rain, the only malfunction the car suffered was the dashboard shorting out, Kaczor said. He added that other teams, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Iowa State University, weren't as fortunate, crashing because of the weather.

Driving even in normal weather could be rather unpleasant, according to Kaczor. The windowless car has no airbags, no radio and no air conditioning — meaning temperatures in the car could reach up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kaczor added that what little suspension the car has sometimes gives him back pain, but he still enjoys driving the car.

“It’s so exciting — I love it,” he said.

Rackham student Caitlin Sadler, head of public relations for the solar car team, said the University is in good position for the remainder of the race. She explained their team won a preliminary race before the challenge in order to have the first pole position.

Sadler said currently the University of Minnesota and Principia College are the team’s closest competitors.

Historically, the Solar Car Team has had an impressive record at the American Solar Challenge, but Sadler said that only increases the incentive to win.

“The pressure is really on when you come from this kind of legacy,” she said. “(The University has) won six championships before (and) the last three in a row.”

She added that even arriving back in the team’s home turf of Ann Arbor can work against the squad.

“Coming through Ann Arbor — while we are extremely excited to be here and see the fans — it’s more pressure because everyone comes to see us,” Sadler said.

Since 1989, the University has been building solar-powered cars to race competitively, but Sadler said younger teams are just looking to finish the race.

“(Being) more of a marathon is the best way to describe (it), and there are teams here who I know are really in it to just complete the marathon,” Sadler said.

Despite their three-hour lead, Sadler acknowledged that the team doesn’t have victory assured.

“(In) solar car racing anything could happen,” she said. “It looks like we have this big lead right now, but we blow a tire, or we … go off the road for some reason … there’s so much that could happen.”

Maintaining the three-hour lead can never be assumed, she added.

“It could take so long to make a repair,” Sadler said. “Even though we’re pretty good at making quick repairs, some things take three hours to repair and there goes your lead,”

Engineering senior Aaron Frantz, the team’s operations director, said the race is much more complex than simply driving a car. In total, the race involves seven University vehicles — lead car, chase car, a semi-trailer, media car, scout car, weather car and, of course, the solar car.

Frantz said all of these cars work in a concerted effort to produce the most efficient driving possible by sending information to a computerized control center in the chase car. Recommendations based on these results are then radioed to the driver of the solar car.

“The computer model takes into consideration … what the weather forecast says … what the current charge of the battery is, what the route terrain is like and how much we have to go, and it spits out a number,” Frantz said. “That number is how fast we have to drive in order to finish the race in as little time as possible.”

One solar car alone costs roughly $1 million and is made of carbon fiber, titanium and aluminum, among other materials.

Despite the heavy investment into solar technology, Frantz said solar cars are still a ways away from consumers.

“We’re not going to see any solar car vehicles on the road necessarily ever,” he said “It’s a very much experimental thing.”

Frantz said it’s what’s learned from building and racing these solar cars that will impact the future.

“The sort of technologies that we develop here will be the basis for tomorrow’s energy-efficient vehicles.”

Kaitlyn Byrne contributed to this report.