The Michigan Solar Car Team has spent two years designing and building Continuum, its latest vehicle. Starting Sunday, the group will have five days to prove that its car is the best in the world.

Clif Reeder
The University of Michigan Solar Car team has spent two years designing and building Continuum, which the team will race across the Australian Outback beginning on Sunday. (COURTESY OF MICHIGAN SOLAR CAR TEAM)

The team’s race crew is now in Australia, preparing for the biennial Panasonic World Solar Challenge, a trek across 1,864 miles of Australian Outback roads. The race is scheduled to begin Sunday in Darwin, a city on the country’s northern coast, and expected to finish five days later in Adelaide, a city on the southern coast.

This year’s competition is the Michigan team’s sixth attempt. The team has finished as high as third three times, including in 2005, the last time the race was held.

The Michigan team is also reigning champion of the North American Solar Car challenge, a race from Austin, Texas to Calgary, Canada.

Engineering sophomore Alex Curaudeau, the team’s engineering director, said the crew in Australia is feeling intense pressure before the race.

“When the race finally comes, you’re really nervous because you have put an entire two years of your life into this project,” he said. “It’s like watching your kid grow up; you just want it to succeed.”

Each car, driven by a team member, must be powered by up to 6 square meters of solar cells attached to the body of the car. The cars can cost millions of dollars to build and travel up to 100 mph – a sweet ride, as long as it’s sunny out.

The University’s car cost about $2.5 million dollars. Much of the money was raised from companies like General Motors, Ford, Motorola, Shell and 3M.

Competitors from 18 countries have entered a total of 41 cars in the contest.

The University’s team is one of four entrants from the United States. The other three come from Stanford University, Oregon State University and Houston High School in Houston, Texas.

Although the solar car, built entirely by students, is a technical feat, the team includes more than just engineering students. This year’s team, which has more than 100 members, also includes students from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and the Ross School of Business.

Team leaders picked a team of 23 students to work as race crew for the trip to Australia.

The team experienced a setback this year when the race’s vehicle regulations were changed after it had already designed its vehicle. Under the new rules, the driver must sit upright rather than lie flat. In addition, the driver must be able to exit the car without the assistance of team members, as they did in previous years, and the car must be piloted by a steering wheel instead of a joystick.

While the changes in race regulations forced the team to redesign its car, Project Manager Tom Carroll said the changes will make the race more challenging.

“It will be more interesting because the changes will slow all the cars down, and it makes driving more practical because the drivers are sitting up and using a steering wheel,” said Carroll, a University alum who graduated this spring.

During the competition, driving times will be strictly limited to between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Drivers can only drive six-hour shifts because the temperature in the car can be as much as 40 degrees hotter than the outside temperature.

At the end of the racing day, teams will stop and camp overnight by the side of the road. The entire crew will follow the car in trucks and perform any necessary repairs or maintenance after a car stops for the night.

Continuum, the Michigan team’s car, is equipped with innovative solar cell technology that could give the team an edge in the competition.

Although the car is 9 square meters in size, each car in the race is restricted to 6 square meters of solar cells. In order to gain more power, the Michigan team installed mirrors that automatically track the sun across the sky and reflect additional sunlight onto the solar cells. Now, the cells receive 9 square meters of sunlight using just six square meters of solar cells.

Curaudeau said the Aurora Vehicle Association, a team based in Australia, will be their biggest competition in the race. Aurora’s car placed second, just ahead of Michigan’s, in 2005.

The Michigan team will post daily updates on Continuum and all the other competing cars to its blog. The blog can be accessed through the team’s website at www.engin.umich.edu/solarcar/.

While all members of the Michigan Solar Car Team want to win, this week will be a chance for redemption for the three students on this year’s crew who participated in the 2005 race.

“We’ve tried so hard for the past nine generations and came close, and we just really hope this is finally the year we win it,” Curaudeau said.

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