Xenith: Stanford’s Solar Race Car Wants To Be The Fastest In The World

In a month, the fastest solar cars will meet in Australia for a 14-hour race to determine the speediest sun-powered vehicle. After a disappointing finish in 2010, Stanford’s team thinks they have what it takes.



The rules are simple: Build a car that runs on sunlight, and drive it across the Australian outback as fast as possible. For a long time, the World Solar Challenge meant 14-hour days puttering 1,800 miles across blazing, hazardous desert (“DO NOT swerve to miss kangaroos,” the rule book warns, “You will crash”). No longer.

Engineering students at Stanford University may have created one of the most efficient vehicles of its kind reaching highway speeds merely by converting photons into forward drive. Stanford University’s solar car entry, the Xenith, weighs just 375 pounds with a 4-inch-thin chassis and less aerodynamic drag than a rider on a bicycle. The vehicle is expected to hit 55 miles per hour fueled by just the sun (see a slideshow of many of the Solar Challenge entries).

“The plan is to win,” said Nathan Hall-Snyder, the leader of the student team designing the car with the school’s Solar Car Project, in a University statement. That would be a big change from 2009 when the team finished last among the 10 cars that finished the race (although 15 others dropped out). Their new strategy? “This year we focused on designing the most aerodynamic shell possible, and then designed everything else to fit inside,” said Hall-Snyder. The team has incorporated breakthroughs like computer-steered rear wheels, and an experimental glass from Corning to encapsulate the solar cells that doesn’t absorb solar energy. The team has spent roughly 10,000 hours and invested $500,000 into the car.

The Xenith is going up against a suite of competitors who are descending on the desert to see what solar can do in the future. Two of the winners who took top spots last year promise to provide steep competition, including the 2009 winner “Tokai Challenger” from Tokai University and the Dutch Nuon team. There will be 27 other teams, including cars from the University of Michigan, MIT, and the University of California-Berkeley, at the race.

But the Stanford team is pretty confident of their car. “If you fail at something, one of the things you hear all the time is ‘if you fail, try harder,'” said Nathan Golshan, a product design major. “This is what makes Solar Car awesome.” You can follow their blog here. The race begins October 16.

[Image: Stanford Solar Car Project]


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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.