The Michigan Solar Car Team’s masterpieces, on display at Detroit’s auto show for the last two weeks, looked less like cars than spaceships.
One of the otherworldly looking objects cruised the highway at over 60 mph on video screens behind the cars. In the video, an experienced driver guided the vehicle with controls more like the ones you might see in Star Wars than the steering wheels in your dad’s Buick. Lying down barely 2 feet over the pavement, the driver was protected by the strongest, lightest materials available. But the driver’s helmet was more familiar. It bore the same famous winged design the Michigan football team wears.
The Solar Car Team displayed its 2005 and 2001 cars at the auto show. Both of the cars on display won the national championship and took third in the world competition.
A massive collaborative effort, the team’s car sports some of the latest technological advances and the work of some of the University’s brightest minds.
It uses the same gallium arsenide space-grade solar cells that NASA uses instead of the cheaper silicon cells most teams use.
The Solar Car Team is made up of more than just engineers. It includes business majors and LSA students who develop marketing strategies to help cover the massive startup costs. Project Leader Brian Ignaut is quick to point out that the engineers can’t build the car without funding.
During the auto show, students like Business sophomore Keyvan Mirsaeedi, the team’s head of corporate relations, walked around visiting booths, handing out information packets and asking for support.
Ignaut said students who work on the project often get several job offers from major engineering and auto industry companies.
With a budget of more than $1.8 million, the 2005 car featured sponsorship decals from some of the world’s biggest corporations. The logos of General Motors, Ford, Motorola and Shell dot the car.
Continuum -the team’s car currently in production – has a budget of over $2.2 million.
The budget must withstand the whims of both fate and bureaucracy. Halfway though the 2007 car’s design process, Ignaut said, many regulations for the World Solar Challenge in Australia were changed. The changes were so drastic that the entire project had to be scrapped and the team had to start over after about a year of work.
For instance, the driver now has to sit upright.
“It adds a tremendous amount of drag to have (the driver) sitting cross-legged,” Ignaut said.
The solar array surface area specification was also greatly diminished, forcing designers to strive for efficiency even more than they had in the past.
Because the cars compete on public roads, race officials at the world competition have also recently imposed speed limits and large time penalties for going over the limit.
“They’re trying to make it more real-world,” Ignaut said. “Like adding an actual steering wheel instead of handles and having the driver sitting up.”
Real-world applicability is a key part of the solar car project. For example, the communications system provided by Motorola is military grade.
Every component was designed for efficiency, low weight and safety. There were many aspects of the 2007 car that Ignaut wouldn’t even talk about. He feared that other teams would gain an advantage if they knew what Michigan had in the works.
The team members seem optimistic about their chances to win the World Solar Challenge in the Australian Outback, the sport’s premier race.
To qualify for the biannual race, judges study and test the car’s ability to function. In the team’s last appearance – the 2005 race – they took third.
On the way to the auto show from Ann Arbor on Friday, team members enthusiastically discussed the merits of affixing spinner rims to the solar car, and how they might affect efficiency.
During each race, an entourage, composed of team members, rides along with the car. There are scout, lead, chase, communications, meteorology and camera vehicles.
Teams scout ahead to time traffic lights, construction, crosswinds and weather. A laundry list of calculations enable maximum optimization, but any slight hitch throws calculations out the door and sparks a scramble of activity to find the new optimal cruise speed. “Without the strategy side, it could never work,” Ignaut said.
As with any large-scale project, the Solar Car Team constantly faces staggering setbacks and problems. Ignaut described a situation in 2001 when the team was doing practice runs just under three weeks before a race. The car crashed while traveling at more than 60 miles per hour. The team had to rebuild.
“Fortunately, the driver walked away from that one,” Ignaut said.
To ensure that the team’s next journey to the Australian Outback for the World Solar Challenge goes smoothly, logistics team member Brooke Bailey helps plan every step of the way, down to what the team members will eat and where they will sleep.
The car has to be shipped on a Boeing 747 and inspected by customs, while the support vehicles are shipped by sea. All the spare parts must arrive on time and on location, and strategy has to be coordinated. According to the team’s information packet, logistics alone take up over a quarter of its budget.
All told, the solar car project brings together more than 100 students, hundreds of thousands of sponsorship dollars and careful effort to produce results on the 3,000 kilometer race across the Outback. Working on the car, described by many as a “remarkable experience,” provides a starting point for the careers of many young University students.