For most students, the summer is an escape from school. But for about 125 University students, this summer saw the culmination of years of hard work in a 2,400-mile solar car race from Plano, Texas to Calgary, Alberta.

Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan Solar Car Team

The University of Michigan Solar Car Team and its vehicle, Continuum, led 15 other teams of students across the North American Solar Challenge finish line in Calgary Tuesday. The team completed the race in 51 hours and 42 minutes on the road.

The victory is the team’s fifth championship in the last nine NASC races. It also won the most recent NASC, held in 2005.

Principia College placed second, followed by the sole European finisher, the German FH Bochum Solar Car Team. It took Principia almost 10 hours longer than Michigan to complete the race, in about 61 hours and 38 minutes. Bochum’s car took about two hours more.

College of Education graduate Jeff Ferman, the team’s race manager, said it was incredibly rewarding to walk across the finish line beside Continuum, surrounded by 40,000 people.

“All the time and dedication really paid off,” he said. “We got to get out and walk across the finish line with (the car). It was great.”

“The streets were lined with people,” he said. “There were people on overpasses with tripods taking pictures.”

The Michigan team was in the lead for almost the entire race, trailing only on the first day of driving when it had to stop to fix a minor electrical problem. But that 20-minute stop was the only stop the team made for repairs, which team members said was one reason they did so well.

“Reliability is one of the key things,” said engineering senior Steve Hechtman, Michigan’s project manager.

“As they get more miles, teams start to get more problems with the car,” said Hechtman, who was also one of Continuum’s drivers. “Once we left Fargo we just started pulling away from the other teams,” he said, referring to the required stop all the cars made in Fargo, N.D. on day 7 of the race.

NASC organizer Dan Eberle said building a reliable car is “the first criteria” for a successful solar car team.

“There’s two things that really make a team,” he said. “One is they’re very well-organized. Two is that they’ve been able to stay on the road,” he said, discussing Continuum’s crew.

Eberle said he was still surprised how far ahead of the field Michigan was.

He noted that Michigan uses gallium arsenide photovoltaic cells on the car, which can provide almost 50 percent more power than silicon cells but are nearly twice as expensive.

Principia and a number of other teams also use the gallium cells.
“We do limit the surface area of the gallium cells,” Eberle said, but added, “The people who came in first are the people with the high-performance cells.”

Luke Martz, director of fundraising for Iowa State University’s PrISUm Solar Car Team, said he thought the different cell types teams used had a major impact on the race. PrISUm, which placed eighth, uses silicon cells.

“There’s not anything that I hold against any other teams that did use gallium cells,” he said. “But it’s like apples and oranges.”

Darshni Pillay, operations manager for the University of Calgary Solar Car Team, said she didn’t think the gallium cells provided a significant advantage. Her team, which uses the more expensive cells, came in sixth, two spots ahead of PrISUm.

“I really don’t think that would have been a deciding factor,” she said. She said the regulation on the surface area of the cells negated most of their advantage.

Pillay pointed out that Calgary’s team, like PrISUm, had to tow its car when cloud cover was heavy in the early stages of the race. She said the reason leading teams didn’t have to “trailer” — which is legal but comes with a time penalty — was because they were able to get ahead of the weather, not because of any superior technology.

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