University solar car Novum takes the gold (almost)

Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 5:11pm

The University of Michigan Solar Car Team finished second in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge Thursday, race, which takes place every other year, featuring university, corporate and high school teams from across the globe. It was the team’s most successful outcome yet.

Roaring through the Australian Outback, the team’s vehicle, Novum — which means “new thing” in Latin — made the trip from the country’s northern territory to Adelaide, South Australia, in just five days. The team finished behind the Dutch winner from Delft University of Technology by 1 hour and 59 minutes.

The University of Michigan’s Solar Car Team, the reigning North American champion, had until now been afflicted with the so-called “curse of the third,” finishing third place at the World Solar Challenge in its 27-year history.

This year, the team made a radical departure from the design traditional for solar cars in favor of a skinnier monohull Novum, resulting in improved aerodynamics. 

Faculty Adviser Neil Dasgupta, an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering, said in a press release the design change was the greatest gift this year’s team left to future generations of team members.

“We took a chance on going with a small car, and we’re going to be ahead of the curve for years to come because of that,” Dasgupta said. “I do believe that as the race continues to evolve, more and more teams will move towards a smaller car design.”

Furthermore, the team developed a custom weather prediction model so the team could adjust its race strategy in response to unpredictable weather patterns.

Engineering junior Alan Li, the team’s strategy lead, said being able to conserve energy throughout a long race filled with cloudy weather, high winds and thunderstorms was a crucial matter.

“What’s important is that we were able to predict the entire day’s average radiation,” Li said in the press release. “It doesn’t matter if we get the energy earlier or later in the day. It’s also important to take every day of the race into consideration — to look ahead. It could be sunny one day and we drive really fast, but if it’s cloudy the next, we wouldn’t have enough energy.”

Engineering senior Patrick Irving, the team’s lead micro systems engineer, said he was glad that his crew’s willingness to take risks has paid off.

“This is indescribable,” Irving said in the press release. “I’m so proud of everyone for doing something no other Michigan team has done. We had really high hopes for this car and doing something different. It was a big risk. We knew it was going to go either really well, or really not well. We’re all very happy with how things turned out."