Solar-powered car team takes to Taiwanese roads

Elizabeth Cook

At top speeds of 77 miles per hour and running off the sun’s energy, the University Solar Vehicle Project team’s car will compete in Taiwan in this year’s international competition.

The World Solar Rally, an international event including teams from the United States, Japan, Australia, Iran and Canada, will take place Sept. 18 to 20.

The University team announced Thursday it will drive Borealis III, the same car that took second place in the North American Solar Challenge last summer.

The race will run along the western coast of Taiwan, from Kaohsiung City to the southern tip of the island, back up through Dapeng Bay to the Tropic of Cancer Park, then back to Kaohsiung City. The race itself will be about 360 miles and take three days, said Patrick O’Connor, the solar vehicle project manager.

Mechanical engineering senior David Myers is one of three who will be driving during the competition.

But driving these cars isn’t like taking the station wagon around the block.

The top of the car is covered in solar cells that convert solar radiation into electricity. This power goes into the rear wheel, where the motor is. Chains and transmissions aren’t involved in the running of the vehicle at all, said Patrick Starr, the faculty adviser for the project.

Because of the car’s flat, low shape, the driver has a small window in which to see the road ahead, which means plenty of blind spots.

That’s why there are two vans, one in front and one behind the car, both filled with team members who are in constant communication with the driver, Starr said.

The car is also hot inside because there is no air conditioning, but there are vents that allow air in once the car is moving, Meyers said.

“The faster, the cooler,” he said.

Some students, such as aerospace engineering sophomore David Towey, are unable to drive the car because of its small size. Towey is 6 feet, 3 inches tall.

Towey is part of the aerodynamics team, which helped build the top fin on the car.

He and other crew members said the fin doesn’t increase speed, it just adds the needed height to be within regulation of the race.

There are 10 University students going to Taiwan, but there are more than 30 students who make up the Solar Project, Starr said.

Anyone can get involved in the nonpaying, no-credit class, regardless of their major, Starr said. And some students put in almost 20 hours a week.

The importance of a project like this goes behind competing and Taiwan; it’s something that can be of value in the future as the price of gas increases and fossil fuels diminish.

“It’s important that we train young men and women to be familiar and skilled in the application of renewable energy technologies,” Starr said.

Aerospace engineering junior and crew chief in Taiwan Jessica Lattimer is the only woman going to Taiwan, but she said she feels completely comfortable going.

But there are some natural dangers for solar-powered cars.

“Shadows are really bad for it,” she said.

Another element that gives the car less power is rain. To try to combat the natural occurrence, the team looks at historical weather patterns.

If it does rain, the car can still drive, but only about 20 miles per hour. And if the car runs out of power, the only way they can recharge during the race is through the sun. The use of batteries is prohibited once the race begins.

The race takes place mostly on two-lane roads, where other cars drive.

These cars are an oddity on the roads. Some have even driven next to the solar cars in the wrong lane to videotape them, Starr said.