University Of Minnesota & MIT Teams Win American Solar Challenge

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Earlier this month, we ran an article about the Formula Sun Grand Prix, a track race that also serves as the qualifier for the American Solar Challenge, an overland race for college solar car teams. One of the cool things about this year’s race is that they added classes for slightly more practical cars to keep the teams from straying as far from automotive reality as usual. In other words, they wanted the cars to be a little more useful, giving extra points for more seats.

After qualifying for the long race, teams went onto a 1400-mile race that happens in 4 stages over 8 racing days, including various checkpoints and stops. In 2022, this means it happened over 10 calendar days. That might sound slow (many drivers can do 1400 miles in only a day or two with normal cars), but when your only power source is the sun, it’s a much more difficult feat.

Now, winners are being announced. The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project team won first place in the Multi-Occupant Vehicle class, while the MIT team won the less-realistic single-occupant class. We haven’t heard much from MIT, but the University of Minnesota’s website gave us more information about their team’s win.

The University of Michigan Solar Vehicle Project has been competing in the American Solar Challenge since 1993, but this is the first time they’ve ever finished first, having come second both categories seven times previously.

“Our team has been at this for a while and we’ve had some incredible cars, but we’ve never been able to stand on top of the podium before,” said Amber Zierden, a U of M mechanical engineering student and the team’s Director of Engineering. “There is nothing better than getting to build something with your own hands, and then after pouring thousands of hours into it, getting to race it across the country with some of your best friends.”

The student teams traveled more than 1,400 miles along the Oregon National Historic Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Twin Falls, Idaho, this year. The competition lasted 16 days in July and included four days of vehicle inspections, a little “Formula Sun Grand Prix” race, and culminating in the eight-day trip across the United States.

Students at the University of Minnesota designed and created their own motors for “Freya,” a solar vehicle with two seats that can travel about 400 kilometers on a fully charged battery. The car’s 1,000-watt solar panel array charges a lithium-ion battery beneath it. The only team at the contest who developed and constructed their own motor, the team’s hard work paid off.

“Both Amber and I were on the race last year when we had the battery fire,” said Ivana Truong, a U of M biochemistry student and the team’s Director of Operations. “Over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, I saw how hard our electrical team worked to design and build an entirely new battery and electrical system and how all parts of the team took what we learned from last year’s race to make Freya more prepared for this race. I’m proud to be a part of bringing home first place for our whole team, both past and present.”

Freya suffered a fatal breakdown while ascending a slope in Raton Pass, Colorado, during the 2021 American Solar Challenge (which was rescheduled from 2020 owing to COVID-19). This year’s main difficulty for the pupils was trekking another hill — a nearly 20-mile long incline in Wyoming.

The students have already begun work on the team’s next vehicle, which will be its 15th solar-powered automobile. In Fall 2023, they’ll debut it at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, the world’s largest solar racing championship, in which teams race throughout Australia.

“This is a tremendous success for our Solar Vehicle Project students,” said Andrew Alleyne, dean of the U of M College of Science and Engineering. “What I find even more compelling is the time, effort, and ‘sweat equity’ that goes into something like this. The skills, both technical and soft, that the students acquired throughout the year are things that will catapult them to success well beyond what they learned in the classroom.”

Why This Matters

When we consider that solar racing hasn’t changed a lot since the 1980s (at least on the surface), it’s easy to assume that it’s a solar-powered road to nowhere, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As I pointed out in another article about a team from Arizona, the history proves otherwise. A solar vehicle event in Australia, for example, pushed GM to develop new EV technology. They not only won the race comfortably with their roly poly car (the Sunraycer), but this also led to GM creating the Impact, a prototype that eventually became the EV1. Even if the first mass-produced electric vehicles did not appear until much later, this was the first time that modern electric cars were on the road in any significant numbers. In the end, GM returned the automobiles it had leased out and crushed them, but this sparked something else that almost no one would contest:

Tesla’s initial years were a struggle, but the company has since broken through and shown that mass-produced electric cars are feasible, appealing, and even profitable. This put pressure on other automakers to produce their own electric vehicles. Now we’re beginning to see some significant progress being made in terms of increasing the number of EVs on the road.

In other words, yesterday’s seemingly meaningless solar vehicle competitions have resulted in today’s electric car revolution. They not only proved the technology out; they also disseminated information and expertise to individuals who would go on to work in the field. They also encouraged others to participate.

Every participant in these competitions isn’t going to go on to be the next Elon Musk, but most of them will become valuable players at some level in the EV market. But, a few of them will go on to make contributions to the industry that they wouldn’t have been able to make if it weren’t for their experience working on a team and getting stuff done.

Featured image provided by the University of Minnesota. 

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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