Through Texas heat and tornado alley, the U-M Solar Car Team hopes to bring back its fifth consecutive trophy in the American Solar Challenge, which starts Sunday in Austin, Texas.
Reigning national champions, U-M has won the race seven times. It’s one of 23 collegiate teams that will compete this year in the 1,700-mile, eight-day event that ends in Minneapolis on July 28.
Breaking from its traditional approach, the team will run Quantum — the lightweight three-wheeler that took first in the American race in 2012 and third in the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 2011. Typically, the students enter the car they most recently built and raced in Australia. But the 2013 world race required four wheels, which is a slower configuration than three.
“Quantum is much faster than the four-wheeled Generation car,” said Project Manager Pavan Naik, a junior industrial and operations engineering student. “It’s more aerodynamic, and it weighs a lot less.”
A cutting edge electric vehicle, Quantum has a carbon fiber body, a high-performance lithium-ion battery and energy-efficient regenerative braking. It weighs 320 pounds without the driver and uses the same amount of energy that it takes to run a hair dryer.
While the car has raced before, most of the students on the team have not. That’s another aspect that’s different than the typical cycle. Usually, most of the students who compete in the previous year’s Australian race stay on for the U.S. contest. But this time, a majority of them graduated.
The novice team had to cut its first mock race short when it became clear that the drivers needed practice before facing road traffic and inclement weather. The students tried again, and successfully completed a Midwestern dry run over the past weekend.
Naik — one of the few to have raced before — has faith in the team. But he knows how different the real thing is from practice.
“In mock races, you get to learn how everyone’s jobs fit together. But when you get to the real race, you realize there are other people who are doing the same thing and you have to be mindful of that — of the traffic and the crowds,” Naik said.
Along the way during, the team will stop to camp for the night in Weatherford, Texas; Norman, Oklahoma; Wichita and Overland Park, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Ames, Iowa; and La Crosse, Wisconsin, before finishing in Minneapolis.
The Solar Car Team comes from a wide variety of disciplines. Students work together to engineer and race a completely solar-powered vehicle. The team has a 25-year history including seven championships in the American Solar Challenge, and five international third-place finishes in the World Solar Challenge. Nearly 20 students will be on the race crew for the upcoming contest.
Major sponsors include Ford, General Motors, IMRA, Michigan Engineering, NYK, Qatar Airways and Siemens PLM Software.