This week 32 solar powered cars from 17 countries have converged on Australia's outback to compete for the title of World Solar Car Champion. The race, the "World Solar Challenge" takes place every two years - giving teams ample time to raise money, design, build and test their dream vehicles. It's a unique event and there are 5 reasons to love every part of it.
The silhouette of a solar car has always held the public's fascination. The cars are so "space-age" and other-worldly they don't seem real. Their movement is powered purely from the energy of the sun - a wheeled creation that allures through it's beauty and it's brains.
The top teams from around the world have one thing in common. They realize from the outset that a successful solar car program requires a true blend of disciplines. Take for example the University of Michigan solar car program. Their program (see video and original post), involves a core of about 40 students with input from a total of 100-200 students. It's a truly interdisciplinary group with 50% engineering and 50% business, PR and support personnel. Solar cars are expensive, demanding the highest quality components, so the business side has to raise huge amounts of money to allow the engineers to implement their designs. Teamwork is paramount and these students are learning that lesson well.
The competitors consist primarily of major Universities from around the world. The competition is fierce, but imbued with the collegiality and sharing that most of us can only remember whimsically from our college days. This is what makes solar car racing so intriguing. The sense of higher purpose, learning for learning sake, and genuine concern for others' welfare all ties in with the common goal of seeking clean and efficient sources of energy. In an increasingly hostile world, solar cars represent intellectual energy in its purest form.
Solar car racing is dangerous. Driver safety is of paramount interest and all cars are fitted with state of the art roll cages. Still, the sexy silhouette comes at a cost. A car that can reach speeds of 87 miles per hour using only the energy of a hairdryer, must be trimmed of all excess weight. The "shell" of the car is precisely that - a thin carbon fiber sheet whose primary purpose is to house the solar array on it's surface. The wheels are slimmed down to reduce wind resistance, making them prone to blow outs. Unfortunately, crashes are all too commonplace. When you see the wreckage of a solar car crash you quickly realize how vulnerable drivers can be.
This is a race we all have to win.
As the concern over climate change builds and the price of precious fossil fuels gyrate on the world markets, we are increasingly dependent on innovation for our energy security. The World Solar Challenge is a catalyst for some of the planets brightest minds to think outside the box and apply those ideas to the real world. These cars seem futuristic, and they are, but the future requires that we speed up our quest for cleaner energy cars, buses, planes and self-sufficient homes. The students that have dedicated their last two years to these solar car projects all deserve our thanks, respect, and admiration for their advancement of technologies that will indeed affect how we live in the years to come.
Race Updates: Follow our Twitter stream for updates on the race. As of this writing, the Michigan solar car was in 2nd place and MIT in 6th after 1 day of racing. Berkeley did not make the trip to Australia.