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  • 07.26.12

The Solar-Powered Dream Car That Just Won A 1,650-Mile Race

Who needs gas when you’ve got the sun? This car won the North American Solar Challenge by more than 10 hours. Find out how the team did it.

Michigan, home of gasoline-powered automobiles and a growing piece of the electric vehicle industry, is also harboring an inspiring yet relatively little-known vehicle project: the University of Michigan Solar Car Team–the most successful solar car team in the country.

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The team recently took home its seventh win in the North American Solar Challenge (NASC), taking its solar-powered, single-seater Quantum race vehicle 1,650 miles in eight days–from Rochester, New York, all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota. The team won with the largest margin of victory in the history of the race, besting the second place team (Iowa State University) by 10 hours and 18 minutes.

What makes the Quantum so special? The solar vehicle, which is the 11th built by the Michigan team, has a number of advantages: It’s relatively light, weighing 320 pounds sans driver (200 pounds lighter than the Michigan team’s last vehicle); it’s 30% more aerodynamic than the team’s previous vehicle, and it has been extensively tested in the rain. That last advantage came in handy during this year’s race, which saw rain on two of the competition days. The vehicle can also go 105 mph.

As the Michigan Solar Car Team website explains: “Race strategy involves developing detailed mathematic models of the various systems of the vehicle and using these models to predict vehicle performance during the race. We also take into account weather data from our team meteorologist, which allows us to optimize our energy consumption.”

The team isn’t just a bunch of college students who work on the solar car in their spare time; members spend each summer preparing for the American Solar Challenge or the World Solar Challenge (depending on the year). In the fall, the approximately 20-member team takes a semester off for the World Solar Challenge in Australia, where they do a mock 1,800 mile race across the country to prepare for the real thing. And then, of course, the students are always working on new vehicles. Each one takes two years and over $1 million to build.

The Michigan teams’ solar cars haven’t yet translated into solar-powered commercial vehicles. But much of the technology used in the cars–efficient motors, carbon fiber bodies, high-performance batteries–is coming down the line. And unsurprisingly, the Michigan students are hot commodities for all of the major U.S. automakers.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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