U’s solar car team test drives for race

by Mehgan Lee

People passing by the Minnesota State Fairgrounds inevitably stopped, pointed and gawked despite the high humidity and hot summer sun Saturday afternoon.

Members of the University’s Solar Vehicle Project gathered to learn to drive their sixth solar car, Borealis 2, in a fairground parking lot.

“People turn their heads nonstop when they see the car,” said Travis Lee, outgoing project manager and mechanical engineering graduate student.

The solar-car team members practiced accelerating, decelerating, making emergency lane changes, stops and exits in Borealis 2, Lee said. They are preparing for a 2,500-mile trip starting Sunday.

Event organizers for the 2005 North American Solar Challenge recently chose the University’s team to perform a trial run on a new race course for the intercollegiate competition. Contestants in the competition design, build and race their own solar-powered cars on the longest solar race course in the world.

The new course begins in Austin, Texas, and ends in Calgary, Alberta, mainly following U.S. Highway 75 and Canadian Highway 1.

The trip will take at least three days, with drivers required to take at least three night stops for rest and hydration.

Event organizers chose the University’s team to test drive the course because they wanted a car that could complete the whole route, said Dan Eberle, the race director.

In the University’s last solar racing competition, the Formula Sun Grand Prix in May, the team took second place, Eberle said.

“But from our standpoint, what is perhaps even more prestigious is that they won the team award,” he said.

That committed attitude and sense of teamwork also played a role in Eberle’s choice, he said.

“We were looking for teams that could demonstrate the ability of a good solar car, one well-put together that could give us a sense of how long it takes to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’,” he said.

Lee said the test drive could put the University’s team at an advantage when they compete in the race next year.

“It gives the team experience with the race route,” he said.

Aaron Westman, a junior in aerospace engineering, said he believes working as a team is the most important skill he has learned from the project.

“It’s about dealing with people more than dealing with solar cells and composites,” he said.

The team has 40 contributing members, Lee said.

“It starts out as a whole auditorium of people,” said Tom Whipple, a senior in math and information technology. “But people see it’s going to be a lot of work and the number diminishes.”

Thousands of hours go into the project, Westman said.

“That’s the biggest donation anybody makes,” Lee said.

Corporate sponsors and some University departments fund the project. The car costs from $225,000 to $500,000 to make, not including labor, Westman said.

But half of those costs are covered by donated material and services, said Patrick Starr, the team’s faculty adviser and mechanical engineering professor.

Team members said because they designed their own motor and motor controller for Borealis 2, they are resourceful with their money.

“That’s something we pride ourselves in – not outsourcing,” Westman said.

But driving the car is not a privilege, Lee said.

“It’s noisy, hot and just plain uncomfortable,” he said.

Zac Kahly, an aerospace engineering senior, testified to that after he emerged from a practice drive in Borealis 2 on Saturday, red-faced and sweaty.