The University of Michigan’s quest to the World Solar Challenge: Part 1

This is part one of a four-part series profiling the University of Michigan’s Solar Car Team and their preparation to represent the United States in October’s World Solar Challenge. [The photo above is used with permission from the University of Michigan’s Solar Car Team.]

Ann Arbor, MI  The football stadium is silent. The classrooms are dark and empty. Textbooks sit collecting dust. A relaxed air enfolds all parts of the campus. All but one.

In a workshop in the University of Michigan’s Wilson Center, a frenzy of activity is taking place. Students flit from one end of the building to another, anxiously staring at computer monitors and performing complex calculations. It’s early June and the University of Michigan’s Solar Car Team is racing to ready its latest creation for its official unveiling on the 18th.

Michigan’s Solar Car Team is a student-run organization that builds and races solar cars, both nationally and internationally. This is no small club though. The 100-person team is recognized as the most successful in North America and one of the most successful in the entire world. In the 23 years since the team was initially established, they have built 11 vehicles, been crowned the champions of the North American Solar Challenge seven times and placed third in the World Solar Challenge five times.

Naturally, the team did not earn those accolades on blind luck. They construct a new car from scratch every two years. The current car, Generation, replaces the American Solar Challenge-winning Quantum and promises to improve on its predecessor’s technological wizardry.

Generation will not only be the most technically advanced solar car that the team has ever created, it will be one of the most advanced vehicles on the road. The car draws its power entirely from the blanket of solar cells that coat the body of the car and charge the bank of lithium-ion batteries that rest within it.

Currently, the team is readying itself for the World Solar Challenge, an incredibly grueling, 3,000-kilometer race that sees teams crossing the continent of Australia through the scorching Outback.

The race, which will run from October 6 through October 13, 2013, will see 22 members of the team withdraw from the university for the entirety of the Fall semester in order to spend the maximum amount of time in Australia, prepping the car and making as many improvements as possible.

“Every day, we’re getting up, working on the car and testing it,” said head strategist Matt Goldstein. “The hope is to run the car as many times as possible before the race so that we can hopefully know everything that could go wrong with the car and fix it.”

With a device as complicated as a solar car, there’s plenty that can go wrong.

“Almost every single part of the car is custom made,” said project manager Eric Hausman. “The materials alone generally range from $500,000 to $1 million and have to be incredibly precise.”

As the car has to cross a vast expanse at over 100 mph while running only on an electric motor that produces roughly the same amount of power as the average hairdryer, the attention to detail involved in the design and manufacturing of the car must be obsessive.

“This is definitely more than a full-time job,” said Hausman. “We typically work anywhere from 70to 90 hours per week in the summer and even more when we’re on the ground in Australia.”

The team is divided into four different divisions, each of which is responsible for a different aspect of the team’s operations. The business division is in charge of fundraising to cover the team’s massive costs and handling all publicity. The operations division is in charge of ensuring that all of the team’s things clear customs and end up in Australia undamaged, which is no small feat considering that their luggage includes a solar car, supplies and an entire semi-truck. The engineering division is responsible for the design, build and maintenance of the vehicle itself. Finally, the strategy division is responsible for racing the car.

Coordinating between the various divisions of the team and their immense responsibilities as they frantically scramble to have the car finished in time for the World Solar Challenge can be incredibly difficult.

“One of the things we’re constantly balancing is team burnout and success,” said Goldstein. “We run this very fine line. There are definitely times when we cross it, and there are times when we don’t push hard enough and don’t do well enough. It’s probably our biggest challenge, learning how to push everyone to their limits without going over.”

All members of the race crew admit that the races can be highly taxing. During the races, the race crew camps on the side of the road in large military tents and regularly wakes up before sunrise, which can occur as early as 4 a.m. The race crew travels with a convoy of support vehicles, which includes a semi-truck that transports the car and many of the necessary supplies to and from the race.

The team is able to remain positive due to the unyielding passion that fuels every team member, according to Goldstein.

“You see so much passion on this team. That’s the reason they’re willing to spend these crazy hours working on it,” said Goldstein. “We have one year. We need to make sure that it’s both as good and as safe as possible for this extremely intense race in the Outback.”

This passion is perhaps the largest unifying factor on the team. Passion infuses every action and decision undertaken by the team and has driven them to the forefront of the automotive world. Passion is the reason that these students have sacrificed their vacations and job opportunities in favor of 14-hour days in a workshop in the height of summer, watching as the sun flashes across the masterpiece that is slowly taking place on the floor, waiting to chase the light.