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Driven to Win
Since the U-M Solar Car Team's formation in 1989, the team has won six national championships, the most recent in 2010. While rewarding, those achievements have only heightened the team's desire to reach a persistent goal: to win the World Solar Challenge, an 1,800-mile race through the Australian outback, from Darwin to Adelaide.
"The team's new car, Quantum, specifically was built to win the World Solar Challenge," said Kazu Saitou, ME professor and faculty advisor to the team. "This year we took a whole different approach to designing a new vehicle."
Quantum is 200 pounds lighter than the 2009 car, Infinium. Quantum also is more aerodynamic and has more efficient tires and battery cells, according to Gerald Chang, crew chief and first-year ME graduate student.
In another departure from previous years, the team finished building Quantum a full six months before the World Solar Challenge. "I think not having enough time to test the car may have been one of the reasons for the team not reaching its goal in the past," said Saitou. "This year we pushed back the schedule aggressively so that there would be more time to refine."
In July 2011 the team embarked on a four-day, 1,000-mile mock race around Michigan's lower peninsula. The event gave the team a chance to practice on open roads and get used to working with the caravan's multiple support vehicles.
"Mock Race was priceless, because it taught us many things about Quantum," said Chang. As a result, the team identified needed design changes to the fender, debugged problems with the battery protection system and improved the warning system for debris and road hazards.
Quantum now is poised to compete in the grueling conditions of the Australian outback, and the team has undertaken an ambitious campaign to raise funds for additional refinements that will lead to an estimated 25% further improvement in performance.
"I'm quite hopeful," said Saitou. "As faculty advisor, this was the first car I've been involved with from the very beginning, and I'm excited to see how Quantum will perform in Australia in October."
Many other members of the ME department are part of the Solar Car Team, including Cole Witte, mechanical engineer and navigator; Troy Halm, mechanical engineer and solar car driver; Karl Nagengast, mechanical engineer and chase vehicle driver; Ethan Lardner, head of operations; Alex Trublowski, strategist; and Andrew Huang, interim engineering director.