Canadian Consulting Engineer

Road Warriors

Solar cars have become a passion among university students around the world, especially among student engineers. In Canada, about a dozen Canadian universities have teams that spend thousands of hours...

March 1, 2002   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Solar cars have become a passion among university students around the world, especially among student engineers. In Canada, about a dozen Canadian universities have teams that spend thousands of hours designing and building the futuristic vehicles.

Greg Thompson, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo, is the project manager for their solar car project. Last July the team finished third in the 2,300-mile American Solar Challenge race, driving for 10 days along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. Then in November they came 16th in the five-day, 1,500-km World Solar Challenge race from Alice Springs to Adelaide in Australia. Greg describes what it’s like being a solar car warrior:

“Midnight Sun VI is five metres long and two metres wide. We are allowed to carry eight square metres of solar array. The car weighs 500 pounds, and is as enclosed as we can make it, so the driver is completely inside the vehicle below a bubble canopy. The car has a top speed of about 115 km/h, but in bright sunshine cruises at about 75 km/h.

“For safety reasons we have a lead vehicle and a chase vehicle bracketing the solar car. As well, we have a trailer support vehicle farther back that tows our trailer and our heavy tools. We have one driver in the solar car itself, and radio communication between her and the support vehicles.

“Races generally have around 40 cars. You can be driving with other solar cars neck and neck, or you can break out of the pack and be on your own. There are days we could go without seeing another solar car team.

“The American Solar Challenge was very demanding. We were jumping on and off the interstate and going through a lot of towns and cities. In the cities we have to worry about traffic lights, where to turn. It’s an issue of team coordination and navigation. We were allowed to race until five o’clock, with a grace time of 45 minutes. Basically we find a suitable stopping point on the side of the road — a parking lot or a farmer’s field — and we pull the caravan off and camp there for the night. The next morning at eight o’clock we are off again.

“In the World Solar Challenge in northern Australia we were hit by a ‘whirly whirly.’ It’s like a mini tornado. It lifted part of the car off the ground by about a foot-and-a-half and dropped it back down. It was a nerve-racking experience.

“Australia is a beautiful country. We crossed the Outback. It’s pretty barren land in some areas. We saw some kangaroos, snakes, things like that. In Darwin it’s very hot and humid and tropical, and down south in the Adelaide and Melbourne area it’s very temperate.

“On the last day of the race we were about 100 kilometres outside the finish line and were cruising in 12th place when our motor failed on us. Kumi, our driver, radioed back saying the motor was being temperamental, and then five minutes later she had no power. Our team came out of the vehicles, and the tools and parts were flying. We changed our motor and rear suspension in 23 minutes and were back on the road.

“It was disappointing. The grouping of cars we were racing in was very tight, so within a half-hour we had been passed by three teams. We came in 16th overall.” Bronwen Ledger


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