Solar-Powered Racing Heats Up

Teams are hoping to drive under clear skies when the North American Solar Challenge goes full throttle this weekend.

Twenty-four colleges will be competing in the bi-annual event, which requires participants to design, build and race a solar-powered car from Dallas to Calgary in a grueling 10-day, 2,400-mile test of engineering ingenuity.

And what began as a modest display of solar energy's potential has turned into a showcase for the rapidly developing technology. For example, the first winner in 1990 averaged 25 mph, but the latest champion averaged more than 60 mph.

"The race shows people what we can do with just a tiny bit of something that comes from a sustainable resource," says NASC director Dan Eberle.

Luke Martz, a student at Iowa State University, says he's revved up about the school's chances. Buoyed by their best-ever third-place finish in the last event, his teammates have put in $400,000 and a year's worth of elbow grease to assemble PrISUm, a 1,400-watt solar racecar.

"We're real excited about our special electrical system," Martz says. "I feel that it's something that should definitely give the other teams a run for their money."

Made of super-light, super-strong carbon material, the car also sports a GPS navigational system and the ability to receive real-time weather updates through XM satellite radio, a feature that could prove crucial as the race progresses.

"Driving really fast is the thing you absolutely can't do," Eberle says. "You just want to go just a bit faster than the other cars by managing energy, forecasting road and climate conditions."

Throughout the event's history, a handful of schools have developed into strong contenders, but one program in particular has emerged as the perennial favorite.

"There's a lot of good teams in the race like MIT and Stanford," Martz says. "But the team to beat is [the University of] Michigan."

Students from Michigan have won four of the eight races held so far, and Steven Hechtman, an engineering student, will be behind the wheel when a new generation gears up for another run at the title.

"We're fortunate in that much of our success is built on the experience and winning tradition of our past teams," Hechtman says.

This year's competition, however, will include a couple of new wrinkles. Restrictions have been placed on the number of solar cells that can be installed, and drivers are required to be seated upright rather than lying flat, limitations that translate to less power and reduced aerodynamics.

Figuring out how to deal with the new rules has been a headache for some teams.

"A lot of us are scratching our heads as to how we are going to deal with this," Martz says. "It's basically forcing us to start from scratch."

The UM team has responded to these new challenges by unveiling Continuum, a stealthy-looking vehicle that features just one front wheel to reduce the additional friction created by reshaping the car to accommodate an upright driver.

"The key in this race is getting the most you can out of less power," Hechtman says. "So we feel that the modified aerodynamics is actually going to be one of our strengths."

Still, a route that runs through several states and into a neighboring country presents obstacles that have proven difficult to prepare for.

Darshni Pillay, the co-chair and operations manager for the University of Calgary's solar car team, sees a slight advantage in navigating terrain that happens to be in her backyard, but doesn't think it will make much of a difference.

"Some of these schools have been at it for the last 10 or 20 years. That's definitely an advantage, having all that experience behind them," Pillay says. "This is only our second race, so there's still a lot of glitches to work out."

And although the competitors hope to cruise home with a bright championship trophy, the biggest accomplishment may just be the journey alone.

"It's amazing that a group of basically college students can take on and pull off such an ambitious project," Hechtman says. "It's not the type of thing you expect to do when you apply to a university."