Tom Carroll, the interim project manager for the University of Michigan Solar Car Team, and some other team members, will board a plane today bound for the Australian Outback, and they’ll take with them a solar car they’ve been building for more than a year and a half. The race, the Panasonic World Solar Challenge is the more glamorous of the teams’s two major competitions. The other is the north American solar Challenge in Austin.

Jessica Boullion

Carroll says the race in the Outback doesn’t start until Oct. 21, but the solar car and some team members will head down early so they have some extra time to prepare – never mind starting classes this semester. During the two-month period leading up the race, 23 team members out of the almost 200 participating on the project will test the car.

The testing prepares the team for the actual 1,800-mile competition in the Australian Outback, which is funded by the team’s $2.4 million budget, said Carroll. Principal funding for the project comes from the University of Michigan College of Engineering. Other major contributors include General Motors, Ford and BHP Billiton.

Carroll, a 2007 alumn with a double major in materials science and engineering as well as biomedical engineering, shares his thoughts on the past, the present and future of solar cars and the team.

– We placed third in the world three times, which was traditionally held by teams with larger budgets. This time we’re going to be fairly competitive with them. The team that has won it traditionally has been Nuon, which is a team out of Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands.

– My job is to get companies excited about our projects, to show them what we’re doing and to get sponsorship.

– In July of 2005, we raced in the North American Solar Challenge, placed first in that race, and then we went to the World Solar Challenge in October and placed 3rd in that race, with our previous solar car.

– The North American Solar Challenge is supposed to be this year, but the Department of Energy will not be funding the race, and it will now take place in 2008 and will be funded by Toyota.

– The rules for the World Solar Challenge were changed the beginning of last year, so about a year and three months ago we had to completely redesign our car, scrap the old design and make a new car, and had basically a 15 month timeline to actually to make and develop the entire car.

– The solar cars were getting to point were they were breaking even at the speed limit, so the race officials decided to change the rules. We had to slow the car down and make it more ergonomic for drivers. We couldn’t use as many solar cells, we could only have two thirds of the solar cells. With the driver sitting upright, it makes it so the front profile of the car has more frontal area, so as a result the aerodynamics aren’t as good. We usually build different cars in the process. The first two cars were never actually built because of the condensed timeline.

– We’ve currently put nearly 100 miles of testing on the car, and after we ship it to Australia well put on another 3,000 miles before the race.

– Up until now it has performed extremely well aerodynamically, in the tests performed already. All of the computer modeling and simulation that we did has translated into actual performance. We haven’t gotten up to the highest speed possible, meaning we’ve never really fully tested it. I can’t comment about the predicted maximum speed based on the models, just in case another team reads this. We want to maintain a competitive advantage.

– The 2005 car went 87 miles per hour at top speed.

– The future of this program would just be to continue to improve the car’s technology as much as possible. The solar cars use technology which General Motors only just starting using comercially, but we’ve been using it on solar cars for past 20 years.

– As far as commercial solar cars being feasible, it’s very far off.

– As told to Nick Streicher

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