Student Solar Car Team Shows the Future is Powered by Sunshine

University of Michigan solar car
by Deb Miller Landau
iQ Managing Editor

Battling extreme heat, kangaroo roadkill and a constant threat of clouds, the University of Michigan Solar Car crew shows how teamwork and technology can produce an engineering feat.

For almost five long, sizzling days, an all-star team of 17 University of Michigan students took to the Australian outback, racing a car that guzzles little more than ingenuity and sunshine. The race is the Bridgestone World Solar Car Challenge, a biennial event since 1987 where energy-efficient cars from around the world race almost 1,900 miles to push the limits of solar car innovation.

It’s the World Cup of solar car racing, and University of Michigan is a tier-one team. In 2015, the team finished 4th out of 42 teams from 20 counties.

“It is a thrill to participate in such a big race with engineers from all over the world,” said Pavan Naik, an industrial and operations engineering student at the University of Michigan. Naik is the team’s manager, handling things like budget, staffing, supplies and logistics for shipping the solar car to Australia.

His team’s car, named Aurum, finished behind teams from the Netherlands and Japan, but there was a lot to celebrate.

“We built a car that’s faster than any other University of Michigan team,” he said, and the results bodes well for the future of both solar car racing and the advancement of energy-efficient vehicle research.

“The innovations that we’re creating through building and racing solar cars are pushing the current boundaries of solar technology, but also overall vehicle efficiency,” said Naik. “The automobile of the future, I think, will look and behave very differently from what we are used to today.”

World Solar Car Challenge map

To build and race their solar car, a team of about 70 University of Michigan students spent two years working long hours. The students major in a range of fields, including computer science, business, marketing and aerospace, mechanical and electrical engineering.

The aerodynamic, lightweight, solar-powered vehicle with souped-up computer and digital tracking technology, can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. With every wheel rotation came reams of real-time data that allowed the team to make efficiency decisions they could relay to the driver.

Michigan solar car trailer
Photo by Evan Dougherty, UM Engineering.

During the race, six support cars plus a semi-trailer join Aurum on the road. The weather car, carrying the team’s meteorologist and his equipment, drives an hour ahead of Aurum and the rest of the crew so it can gauge wind direction and speed, cloud cover and other conditions. Behind it, the scout team keeps the road clear of roadkill and debris.

Another support car carries a media crew, another is filled with engineers armed to battle any roadside repair. A giant semi-trailer traveling behind the caravan is filled with tools, equipment, food and camping gear.

The driver, who squeezes into the solar car’s snug cockpit, swaps out with another driver every few hours.

Michigan solar car pilot Evan Dougherty
Photo by Evan Dougherty, UM Engineering.

“Driving the solar car is like driving a Porsche. It’s very small, light and agile,” said driver Clayton Dailey.

Driving is intense because the car travels at highway speeds, powered only by the sun.

The solar car is followed closely by the chase car, which collects and processes sensor data from the solar car. This is where high technology enables real-time decision making that can shave off substantial time.

Michigan solar car support vehicle
Support car photo by Ujjwal Chande, Epik Studios.

“The chase car is primarily where all the strategy happens” said team head strategist and computer science engineering student Leda Daehler. “You can have a great solar car, but what we do in the chase car is really what determines whether you win or lose.”

The chase car is equipped with an Intel server that helps the team crunch data on everything from how much power the solar car needs to navigate hills or curvy terrain to how wind speed will affect the power.

It’s a grueling trek, and the team has to prepare for changing conditions. The barren Australian Outback can be unforgiving. It’s hot during the day, cold at night. There’s no cell service, no Internet.

“We need to have a really reliable network between our entire caravan,” said Daehler, who leans on the chase car’s traveling wireless network to stay connected. “We kind of have our own Internet of Things traveling along.”

University of Michigan solar car
Photo by Evan Dougherty, UM Engineering.

“One of the interesting things about the collaboration between University of Michigan and Intel is what Intel can bring to the party in terms of pervasive compute tech and connectivity technology,” said David Mellers, director of the Intel Solutions Group in Australia.

University of Michigan solar car charging
Aurum’s panels slurp up the last of the waning daylight. Photo by Evan Dougherty, UM Engineering.

At 5:00 p.m. each day, the race stops. The team angles the solar car panels to slurp up what’s left of the setting sun to charge the car battery, which provides a trickle of power before the sun’s power can take over the next day.

The team sleeps in tents and works into the night, strategizing, tweaking the car and preparing for the next day’s race. On little sleep, and long days in the heat, both team and technology are pushed to the limits.

camping food during the World Solar Car Challenge
Support car photo by Ujjwal Chande, Epik Studios.

“There’s no easy way to do it,” said Daehler. “There’s always improvements that can be made. You have to try to keep yourself ahead of the technology other teams might be using.”

Anything can happen. In 2015, a power issue and cloud cover hit at the end of race, dragging the car down to an agonizing speed.

“One of our motors failed on the last day,” said Daehler, which meant the solar car was consuming a lot more power.

Daehler said the car can generate 1,100 watts of power in full sun, but if clouds roll in that number drops to 300 watts.

“Even though those things happened, everyone rallied together to stay positive and enthusiastic,” she said.

Before graduating from Michigan, seniors will prepare younger students for the 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Car Challenge. For Daehler and Naik, who both scored summer internships at Ford, racing solar cars is just the beginning of their work on energy-efficient and autonomous cars.

“Academia has always played a very important role in terms of evolving these technologies with research and development,” said Intel’s Mellers. “This is some of the ground-breaking stuff that’s going to change the lives of many people around the world.”


Editor’s Note: In this Experience Amazing series, iQ explores how computer technology inside is enabling incredible experiences outside. We look at how technology powers new experiences and discoveries in science, the maker movement, fashion, sports and entertainment. To learn more about the tech behind these stories, visit Experience Amazing.

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