M-Pulse, the student-designed and driven solar car, surged to victory Wednesday, crossing the finish line in first place at the American Solar Challenge. The win sends the team to the next level of solar car competition the World Solar Challenge, which will take the team through the Australian Outback.
“The competition itself was real exciting,” said Rackham student Nader Shwayhat, M-Pulse”s project manager. M-Pulse clocked in at a time of 56 hours, 10 minutes and 46 seconds, an hour and twenty minutes faster than the University of Missouri-Rolla, the runner-up and defending champion. “There were a lot of really great schools out there,” Shwayhat said.
That is not a wide margin of time, said Prof. Brian Gilchrist, one of the faculty advisors for M-Pulse. In a race that close, even small problems can be crucial, Gilchrist said.
“One major problem with your car that forces you to spend half an hour in the side of the road” could have a “substantial impact” in the team”s standing, Gilchrist said. M-Pulse was side-lined early on in the race as the team worked to fix a problem.
Each year there is a different route, and this year”s was the longest thus far, Gilchrist said. The 2,300 mile trek took competitors along the historic Route 66.
“The race took us on every landscape that we could have seen,” Shwayhat said. The team navigated through terrain ranging from plains to city streets.
“It was real exciting to be able to cover that much land,” he said but added, “For these tiny solar cars it beat them up a lot.”
The team spent many hours doing repairs and routine maintenance on M-Pulse. Sometimes team members worked through the night to work on issues to improve the car”s reliability, which was complicated by the fact that problems aren”t always easy to pinpoint and take care of, Gilchrist said.
That continued a pattern begun when the team was building the car in Ann Arbor. “One night we were there from 4 pm one day until 6 pm the next day,” said Engineering senior Stephen Heinz, who worked on the electrical aspect of the car. Heinz remembered going home with aluminum chips in his hair. Some team members dedicated as many as 40 hours a week to working on the solar car, Heinz said. “I don”t know how the did it with classes and everything,” he said.
The team was able to reach the point where they were consistently in the lead position in the last few days.
“These cars have to be reliable,” Gilchrist said.
The team had to contend with high temperatures in addition to rough roads, tough competition and technical problems.
“Some of the days were very hot well over 100 degrees,” Gilchrist said. “I can assure you it was at least 10 degrees hotter inside the car.”
To ensure the driver”s safety, the team stayed in constant radio contact with the driver and made sure the driver had plenty of water.
There were two primary drivers for the car, and two back-up drivers. The car was designed so only certain people could fit into the car to drive it. The drivers switched off at every checkpoint. Checkpoints were staged anywhere from 150 to 300 miles apart.
“As the race went on we figured out ways to get more air into where the driver was,” Gilchrist said.
But one of the most significant problems occurred before the race started.
“Before the race itself we crashed our car and destroyed it, so that was probably the biggest thing we had to deal with,” Shwayhat said.
The team had to rebuild the car in a matter of weeks.
“Being able to do that was pretty cool,” Shwayhat said.
The team is resting for now but will begin preparing for their Australian trip at the beginning of August. Fundraising and refurbishing the car are necessary steps to take to ready the team for the next competition.
Shwayhat said he expects road conditions to be better in Australia. Racing on Route 66 was difficult at times because of traffic and bumpy roads.
“You”re on the same street as all the Ford Tauruses,” he said, adding the solar cars are small and drivers don”t always see them. The Australian course is a straight shot of well-kept highway. Shwayhat said expects it to be a “much better test of what your car can do.”
“What makes it difficult is the level of competition,” he added.
Last year”s competition consisted of 40 to 50 teams from 11 countries and six continents. The competition is not restricted to universities. Companies race their designs next to the students.
Gilchrist said the team is still in high spirits and is optimistic about their chances for a good finish. “The team is quite motivated to take their solar car and compete at the international level.”
“As a faculty advisor, I am quite proud of what the team has accomplished and quite impressed,” he added. The students were the ones who designed, built, maintained and drove the car.