The University of Michigan attracts some of the brightest young minds in the country to its Ann Arbor, Mi campus. With all that knowledge and ambition in one place, you're bound to see some amazing results, both in and out of the class room. One such example of the latter is the U-M solar car team--an entirely extracurricular, student-run project. The team typically carries more than 100 members that are involved in all facets of the $1.5 million project. That large budget didn't develop overnight. The U-M solar car team was started back in 1989 by Bill Kaliardos, an undergrad in aero and mechanical engineering. Since then, the team has put together 11 solar cars and has competed in 14 major races in the U.S. and abroad. Based on performance in these events, the U-M solar car team is the most successful program of its type in America.

The solar car team is the pride of the University's strong engineering department and is featured during campus tours--even for non-engineers. In fact, students from all majors and disciplines are encouraged to be part of the team. There are four units within the greater whole that deal with multiple aspects of the program: engineering (naturally), strategy, business, and operations. Many students on the business and operations teams hail from the university's highly regarded Ross School of Business, but everyone from music students to communications majors have joined in the past. With talents that diverse, it's easy to see why they do so well.

Now on their 11th car, named Quantum, the team is continuing the legacy. Quantum is made mostly of carbon fiber, with some aluminum found in the suspension and titanium in the roll cage.

When the solar cells--limited to 6 square meters for competition--bring in energy from the sun, it gets transferred to a lithium-ion battery located in the center of the car. Because the battery gets a lot of use, cooling ducts located in the wheel wells channel air into the battery compartment to maintain a cooler operating temperature.


After the energy is brought in and stored, a motor control unit converts it into three-phase current so that it can be sent to the electric motor. Three-phase current is typically used in power lines to transfer lots of energy. Considering the energy transfer, the electric motors onboard Quantum are 98% efficient, with only 2% lost to heat, friction and ancillary losses. This setup helps get Quantum up to speeds of 80-105 mph using only 12 hp.

Inside the cabin, the driver has a yoke-looking controller that can accelerate the car or activate regenerative braking. There are even controls for turn signals (yes, the car is completely street legal). Also, the strategists in the chase car can communicate with the driver over SMS text that displays on a screen in the cockpit. The driver can respond with either a "yes" or "no" by pressing a button on the controller. In addition to the array of buttons on the controller, there is also a boost button--lovingly dubbed NOS--that briefly increases current passing through the motor, perfect for passing situations.


During the race, strategists in the chase car are constantly monitoring weather conditions. Sunlight, wind, and elevation largely are all modeled to reflect the latest data. From their live modeling, the team constantly tweaks the solar car's speed strategy. They are essentially running forecast models to make sure they can finish the race with a nearly dead battery, meaning they went as fast they could without running out of juice too early.

Building and racing cars with your peers may sound like fun, but there's also a lot at stake. The team hopes to earn their 7th national title in the upcoming American Solar Challenge. They enter the race as reigning champions and would appear to have an excellent chance at a repeat. Go Blue!

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