Glinting in the hot afternoon sun like a giant yellow-and-black cockroach on wheels, the sleek electric racer sat on a stretch of flat vacant road on the north coast of Australia. Its eight square meters of solar cells put out barely enough power to run a hair dryer, but more than enough for the aerodynamic speedster to cruise at highway speeds. Unfortunately, at that moment, it was motionless as the driver desperately squeezed the hand throttle.
"No throttle," he said over a radio link to the chase car, where a team of engineering students from the University of Michigan sat, crestfallen.
In just 16 hours, at 8 a.m. on 18 November, the team and their car, called M-Pulse, had an appointment at the starting line of the World Solar Challenge. The race, held every two years, is an America's Cup for engineers--a grand international contest, rife with technological intrigue, that brings together many of the winners and even the mere survivors of more than a dozen grueling regional races held in the United States, Europe, and Asia. It sends state-of-the-art solar-powered electric cars 3000 kilometers across the entire Australian continent, from Darwin in the far north to Adelaide in the far south.
Solar-car racing is about the most technologically demanding pastime within reach of students and hobbyist-engineers. In fact, corporate teams from automotive giants used multimillion-dollar budgets to win two of the five Solar Challenges held before 2001. In the first race, in 1987, General Motors triumphed with Sunraycer, which ultimately evolved into the EV-1, the electric passenger vehicle introduced into select markets in 1996. And the Honda Dream, built at a reported cost of at least US $8 million, took first place in the 1996 race and set records that still stood as the 2001 race got under way.
Michigan, which had been in the Australian event three times, had never done better than a 1990 finish in third place. With M-Pulse, though, Michigan had its fastest and most reliable car in years. And with an unusually strong field of competitors, the team agreed to let IEEE Spectrum ride along in a support vehicle that would accompany M-Pulse in what promised to be an exceptional race.
To race to win, as Michigan intended to do, required a car with state-of-the-art solar cells, batteries, electronics, and motor and an elegant integration of mechanical, aerodynamic, and materials-science aspects [see "A peek under the hood"]. "There are five or six teams that have all those bases covered, and are moving beyond them," said Nader Shwayhat, the Michigan team leader, who received a master's degree in industrial engineering this past August. Besides Michigan, other pre-race favorites among the field of 33 at the 2001 event were Alpha Centauri, from the Netherlands; the Aurora Vehicle Association, from Melbourne, Australia, which had won the 1999 race; Solar Motions, a U.S. team of rowdy engineers from Silicon Valley, and the University of Missouri-Rolla.
With so many determined contenders, confidence was high that at least one of them would beat Honda's records at last.
Ups and downs Down Under
For the Michigan team, it had been a long, tumultuous, and costly journey to Darwin. To design and build M-Pulse, dozens of students had worked for two years and raised more than $1 million through donations and sponsorships. In an incredibly eventful June and July, they rebuilt the car after a devastating crash, and then beat back a tangle of technical problems to edge out Missouri-Rolla and win the American Solar Challenge, a 3700-km race from Chicago to Claremont, Calif.
The ups and downs continued after the team arrived in Australia, in mid-October, to fine-tune M-Pulse for the World event. Initially, there were weeks of rock-solid reliability, leaving plenty of time to scheme and trade gossip, the unofficial pastimes of the Challenge. A lot of the rumors swirled around the Alpha Centauri team, a newcomer, whose car, Nuna, was outfitted with solar cells of allegedly astounding efficiency and output (and cost--supposedly $1.3 million).
"We've heard crazy numbers, like 28 percent efficiency and 2100, 2200 W," said Blair Lorimer, one of four EEs on the Michigan team. The scuttlebutt invited incredulity, considering that the world record for triple-junction gallium arsenide at the time was 32.2 percent. For comparison, M-Pulse's cells were about 19 percent efficient, and those of the Aurora vehicle, the defending champion, were around 21 percent.
As Michigan nervously eyed Alpha Centauri, the Dutch neophytes returned the compliment. One afternoon, the Michigan team's Adriaan Zuiderweg came upon a small crowd of Alpha Centaurians clustered near the Michigan vehicle talking emphatically among themselves in Dutch. Zuiderweg, who was born in the Netherlands and lived there as a boy, listened for a few moments before introducing himself in flawless Dutch. The startled Alpha Centaurians ended their conversation. "They were impressed [with M-Pulse] and thought we were the team to beat," Zuiderweg translated.