When we last saw the UM Solar Car Team, they were proudly winning the 2010 American Solar Car Challenge. Here they’re shown escorting their vehicle, Infinium, across the finish line at Naperville High School in Naperville, Illinois (a far western suburb of Chicago).
The following day, they got to hoist some hardware in front of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
image courtesy of UMSolar
Who is the UM Solar Car team?
“The University of Michigan Solar Car Team (UMsolar) is an entirely student-run organization that designs and builds solar-powered vehicles. The team races both nationally and internationally. Since its establishment in 1990, the team has built 10 vehicles, won the American Solar Challenge six times, and placed third in the World Solar Challenge four times. UMsolar is widely recognized as the most successful team in North America.”
The Team, The Team, The Team
It takes the team two years to build a car. Design improvements and the building of a new car starts immediately after the most recent one is complete. During summer months, the team is either; participating in the June American race (American Solar Challenge) or shipping team members and supplies to Australia in order to race internationally (World Solar Challenge). The race crew consists of about twenty-five people.
image courtesy of UMSolar
This year (2011) the crew will take the fall school semester off in order to race in the World Solar Challenge. Held during the month of October, the crew ships off to Australia in early September. They will pick up the semi-truck and solar car that has been shipped earlier. A solid month of grueling testing will follow. The team strategists need to acclimate; predicting car performance and energy usage in the Australian sun. Engineers will become familiar with the Australian road network. Eventually, the crew holds a mock race from one side of the country to the other, approximately 1800 miles. Meanwhile, interim leaders take charge, back home, to keep the team running efficiently.
The Team is comprised of four main parts; Engineering, Business, Strategy and Operations. UMsolar is so successful because of specialization within the team. Engineering builds the car. Additionally, engineering team members are further separated into segments; aerodynamics and body, mechanical, electrical, and micro-electrical. Almost every system on the vehicle is custom-designed and built for each race. Business makes the team known to the world. Also, it procures all the parts that are required. Often, the cost exceeds $1.2 million. Strategy performs weather testing and designs custom computer programs to determine the most efficient way to harness and utilize solar energy. This is done so that the performance of the vehicle, on race day, is the best it can be. Operations does all the remaining (hard) work, ensuring the team runs smoothly. This includes shipping the team (vehicles and members) to Australia and maintaining camp, in various locations, for several months.
“The University of Michigan Solar Car Team is comprised of the most talented and driven members of the University from a wide array of disciplines. By developing the best traits within each student, these individuals unite as a team in pursuit of unprecedented excellence. The team implements cutting-edge technology and creative innovations to produce and race a world-class solar car. Extending beyond racing, the team reaches out to the local, national, and international communities. Through partnership with the best companies and individuals, the team’s internal strength translates into external success, driving it to be the best solar car program in the world.”
- 1990 – Sunrunner: Built only a year before the inaugural 1990 SunRayce, Michigan’s first solar car won the event and went on to place third in the 1990 World Solar Challenge.
- 1993 – Maize and Blue: After an extra year to raise money and improve design, this team appeared poised to better the record of 1990's Sunrunner. After finishing first in the 1993 SunRayce, Maize and Blue experienced severe problems with their high-powered solar array and finished seventh at the 1993 World Solar Challenge.
- 1995 – Solar Vision
- 1997 – Wolverine
- 1999 – Maize Blaze: Competed in both the 1999 ASC and WSC
- 2001 – M Pulse: Despite a testing accident, just seventeen days before the race, M-Pulse’s unique design propelled it to a first-place finish in the 2001 American Solar Challenge, Michigan’s third national championship. It also went on to place third in the 2001 World Solar Challenge
- 2003 – SpectruM: the convention of naming the vehicle with a word that ends with the letters “um” begins.
- 2005 – Momentum: finished first in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge, the longest solar car race ever held (Texas to Calgary, Canada).
- 2007 – Continuum: first vehicle to feature the team’s innovative concentrator system.
- 2009 – Infinium: placed first in the American Solar Challenge, the first team in the history of the race to win three National Championships in a row. This car also received the Technical Innovation Award for their ground-breaking concentrator system.
- 2011 – Quantum: unveiled this month, will compete in the WSC, in Australia, in October.
During the week of May 2, 2011, UMsolar participated in the Formula Sun Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They chose not to compete because the car’s solar array is not yet installed (that is, there are no solar cells on the car). Using Infinium’s solar array to charge the battery, Quantum ticked off laps while the team gathered data and fine-tuned their processes. At one point, Quantum completed 90 laps within three hours and thirty minutes. To say the car is fast is an understatement, it’s also eerily quiet. Troy Halm was pretty smooth behind the wheel. He eventually took some pretty sharp corners without using the brakes to set the car’s suspension. I chatted a little with Jordan Feight (Strategy) who told me the drivers had received training, from Ford, and that they needed to work on being smooth and reduce the amount of forward momentum lost through side loading.
I also spoke with Chris Hilger (Business and Operations Director). He was kind enough to answer direct questions involving a brand new car. I was a little surprised; usually responses to direct questions are met with slightly vague answers. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t asking “sensitive” enough questions.
At last summer’s American Solar Challenge, I met one of the drivers from the 2005 team (Momentum), Max Ross. Max and his fellow teammates defeated the University of Minnesota in the closest American Solar Challenge (iirc). After 1500 miles of racing, Momentum finished ten minutes ahead of the Golden Gophers. Max is one of those people that radiates energy. He’s like a personification of a Red Bull. Due to the “family nature” of UMsolar, former team members support the current team while the current team considers former members a valuable resource. Max was able to get me access to Infinium as well as explain, in high detail, how various components worked. Thanks Max.
Also participating in the FSGP were: University of Kentucky, Illinois State University, Iowa State University, Missouri S&T, Northwestern University, University of Minnesota and Michigan State University.
University of Minnesota
University of Kentucky
Michigan State University
I'll have to admit, my Dad and I got a good laugh out of Sparty's effort. On the other hand, my wife felt sorry for them. They were clearly the slowest vehicle on the track and were subjected to being passed, numerous times, each lap. Each vehicle has one of those "canned air" airhorns onboard. They're used to let a slower vehicle know that they're about to be overtaken (the rear view is severely limited on most of the vehicles). You could clearly hear Sparty being overtaken, ad nauseum, whether they were in sight or not.
I was curious as to why they were so far behind, with respect to the other cars in the field. I thought better of asking directly, given the fact I was wearing my UM sweatshirt and cap (I didn't want to be subjected to a possible beatdown at the hands of a clandestine Sparty football player). I later found out that their team is very young, this is their four year of existence, and they have a lot of catching up to do.
As previously mentioned, the team will be installing the solar cell array within the next few weeks. I asked Chris if this was normal as I figured it was a little late to be without your solar array. He assured me that everything was on schedule and there was no reason for concern. After install, the team will continue to test and eventually head towards the east coast, terminating in New York City. They plan to meet with alumni groups along the way. Check their site for the planned route. They would love you to get to see the car and meet The Team. Best of luck to Chris, Troy, Jordan and all of UMsolar especially this Fall when they head “down under” to uphold the tradition. Go Blue.
Even the Solar Car has Wings!
See you Down Under!!
All the information in this Diary was gleaned from the UMSolar web site - thanks.
All images are provided by the Author unless otherwise noted.