We published a piece about the Formula Sun Grand Prix earlier this month. This track competition qualifies competitors for the American Solar Challenge, an overland competition for collegiate solar vehicle teams. In order to prevent the teams from straying as far from automotive reality as usual, they established classes for slightly more practical cars, which is one of the cool aspects about this year’s race. In other words, they gave bonus points for having additional seats because they wanted the automobiles to be a little more useful.
Teams entered the 1410-mile race after qualifying for the long race, which is run in 4 stages over 8 racing days with a number of checkpoints and stops. This implies that it occurred in 2022 during a period of 10 calendar days. While many drivers can travel 1400 miles in just a day or two in a normal automobile, it is considerably more challenging to do it when your only power source is the sun.
Winners are being revealed right now. In the more realistic Multi-Occupant Vehicle category, the University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project team took first place, while the less realistic Single-Occupant Vehicle category was won by the MIT team. MIT hasn’t communicated with us much, however the University of Minnesota’s website awarded us an more information about their teams win rating.
Since the University of Michigan Solar Vehicle Project began competing in the American Solar Challenge in 1993, they have placed second in both categories seven times before, but this is the first time they have won.
The team’s Director of Engineering, Amber Zierden, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, said, “We’ve been doing this for a long and we’ve had some fantastic cars, but we’ve never been able to stand on top of the podium before.” Nothing compares to building something yourself, putting many hours into it, and then having the opportunity to race it across the country with some of your closest friends.
This year, the student teams hiked more than 1,400 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Twin Falls, Idaho, along the Oregon National Historic Trail. Four days of car inspections, a brief Formula Sun Grand Prix race, and an eight-day voyage across America were all part of the competition’s 16 days in July.
For Freya, a solar car with two seats and a range of around 400 kilometers, University of Minnesota students designed and built their own engines. A lithium-ion battery underneath the car is charged by a 1,000-watt solar panel array. The team’s dedication paid off because they were the only one in the competition to design and build their own motor.
Ivana Truong, a biochemistry student at the University of Minnesota and the team’s Director of Operations, said, “Amber and I were both competing last year when we had the battery fire. I observed during the period of the 2021–2022 academic year how arduously our electrical team labored to design and construct a totally new battery and electrical system, and how all team members used what they had learned from the last race to better prepare Freya for this one. I’m honored to have helped our entire team—past and present—bring home the victory.
During the 2021 American Solar Challenge in Raton Pass, Colorado, Freya experienced a tragic breakdown while climbing a slope (which was rescheduled from 2020 owing to COVID-19). The students’ major challenge this year was climbing a new hill in Wyoming that was approximately 20 miles long.
The kids have already started construction on the team’s upcoming vehicle, which will be its 15th car to be powered by solar energy. They’ll make their debut at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in the fall of 2023. This is the largest solar racing competition in the world, with teams competing all over Australia.
According to Andrew Alleyne, dean of the University of Michigan College of Science and Engineering, this is a huge accomplishment for the Solar Vehicle Project students. The amount of work, effort, and sweat equity that goes into something like this is what I find to be even more intriguing. The students’ year-long learning yielded technical and soft abilities that will propel them to success well beyond what they gained in the classroom.
WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT It’s tempting to conclude that solar racing is a solar-powered road to nowhere when we consider that (at least on the surface) it hasn’t altered much since the 1980s. However, this couldn’t be further from the reality.
The evidence to the contrary, as I noted in a different post on a team from Arizona, is historical. For instance, a solar vehicle event in Australia encouraged GM to create new EV technologies. Their roly poly car (the Sunraycer) not only easily won the race, but it also inspired GM to develop the Impact, a prototype that eventually became the EV1. Even though the first mass-produced electric automobiles did not come into existence until much later, this was the first occasion that a considerable number of contemporary electric cars were on the road. In the end, GM smashed the cars it had leased out before returning them, but this spurred another development that nearly no one would dispute:
When GM forcibly recalled all electric cars from consumers in 2003 and subsequently destroyed them in a junkyard, few people are aware that we founded Tesla.
Elon Musk June 9, 2017 (@elonmusk)
Although the firm struggled in its early years, Tesla has subsequently made strides and proven that mass-produced electric cars are possible, desirable, and even lucrative. Other automakers were under pressure to create their own electric vehicles as a result. Now that there are more EVs on the road, we are starting to notice some substantial progress.
In other words, the electric car revolution of today is a direct result of the seemingly pointless solar vehicle competitions of the past. They shared knowledge and skills with people who would later work in the field, in addition to proving the technology’s viability. They also inspired others to join in.
Not every competitor in these contests will go on to become the next Elon Musk, but the majority of them will develop into significant participants in the EV market at some point. However, some of them will go on to contribute to the industry in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to if it weren’t for their background in teamwork and productivity.
University of Minnesota donated the featured image.
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