IT students speed toward solar car race

by Jim Schortemeyer

A basement just a few blocks away from a livestock building and just down the road from the state fairgrounds may seem like an improbable place for high-tech research.
But this is Minnesota.
Deep within the bowels of the Vocational and Technical Education Building on the St. Paul campus is a room full of 38 engineering students, plenty of tools and a couple of solar panels.
These Institute of Technology students are readying the University car entry for Sunrayce 99 — a biennial solar car race.
The University’s newest solar car — the Aurora 4 — will compete in the 10-day intercollegiate race from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla. beginning on June 20.
Working without pay, the IT students have been spending between 30 to 40 hours a week on Aurora 4.
“Weekends are between the big three: school, work and my girlfriend,” team member Steve La Point said. “We don’t have a lot of spare time.”
But the lack of a paycheck doesn’t seem to bother the students.
“The car is an educational experience in itself,” said Liz Watkins, project co-manager. “You learn how to work with people. That’s a job of its own.”
The work can take a heavy toll on the students. In the back corner of the shop there’s a six-inch stack of napkins from a pizza delivery chain. Next to all the spare parts on the tool shelves is a space for frisbees, basketballs and other assorted playthings.
Bringing humor to a serious project, team members often come wearing T-shirts of their favorite South Park cartoon characters.
The occasional levity inside the shop has a lot to do with who’s running the show. The Solar Vehicle Project has been run by students since its initiation in 1990, and has been overseen by professors Virgil Marple and Patrick Starr.
“A pair of students came to me in 1990 with a proposal all typed up and ready to go,” Marple said. “They asked me if I’d sign it, and I said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t have much to do with the development of the program. They had everything ready.”
A few years and couple of near-wins later, the team will spend roughly $250,000 to try and win its first championship in June. The money comes from private sponsors and donations from the IT colleges.
They’ve been close to winning before, but they’ve had reliability problems. They finished second out of 38 teams in 1995 after blowing out two tires. In 1997, the team lost five hours because of a fault in the braking system and finished 11th.
The challenge isn’t speed for the top teams — competitors are restricted to a speed of 55 mph though the car can go over 78 mph — it’s dependability.
Of the 38 members from the 1997 team, nine are returning. They say they have learned their lesson.
“After that experience, we emphasized backups so you can take one system out and put another one in,” Watkins said.
Every important system on the car now has a backup to avoid another big loss of time. Everything has been optimized on the Aurora 4, including the body, which is sliver thin to reduce wind resistance.
The team has been working on the Aurora 4 basically since the end of Sunrayce ’97. While other students go home or do internships over the summer, they work on the car. While other students get out of town over winter break, they work on the car. While their friends are out having fun on Friday nights, they’re in the shop working on the car.
“The students are faced with problems they just can’t see in a classroom,” Starr said. He added that the project is a no-credit seminar and the team is self-selected.
Starr says what the students learn once they’re in the program will hopefully serve them somewhere down the road. Unlike a classroom exercise, there’s little guidance for the students.
“We design a vehicle from a blank sheet of paper,” Starr said. “There’s no handbook or textbook to tell you how to do it.”