Solar Car Race, Oddly, On Pause

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In the middle of the desert, in the middle of Australia, in the middle of a race--a pause. This year, the organizers of the World Solar Challenge--in which solar cars from around the world gather at the top end of the continent to race 3000 kilometers to Australia's southern coast--ordered all the solar cars to park for a day in the small desert city of Alice Springs. With nerves running high and the solar-powered vehicles beginning to show the wear of 2 tough days of driving, the teams are forced to pause and patiently field a day's worth of media attention. After rugged days driving and camping in the outback, it's a bit unsettling to not be moving southward.

The race has been packed with drama, beginning at literally the starting line.

A Dutch team from the University of Delft, named Nuon after its main sponsor, has won the race ever since 2001 with its car Nuna, and the team is being closely watched to see if they can dominate once again under a news set of rules and vehicle requirements. But mere seconds before they were about to leave the starting line, Nuna's motor controller failed. As other cars pulled off the line and raced away, the young engineers from the University of Delft were dashing to and from their support vehicles, unpacking a spare motor controller and replacing parts at lightning speeds.

Half an hour later they were on the road.

Lucky for them, the race start is staggered to accommodate the 30+ vehicles that were heading down the road to Adelaide. Because the breakdown happened before their start time had officially come up, Nuna was simply pushed to the back of the line and they made up the lost time after 5 p.m., when all the other teams were expected to stop for the day. Instead of a total loss of time, it meant lots of tricky maneuvering to pass all the teams in front.

But the University of Michigan's vehicle, Continuum, had an even more traumatic start. Their solar car, which was touted as potentially the best design of the year, crashed into the car in front of it a few minutes past the starting line, crushing the front two rows of solar cells. The team was forced to pull out for the day to reshape the body and reconfigure the solar array to not use the damaged rows, and Michigan rejoined the race a day later, a 1000 kilometers behind the rest of the cars.

By the end of the first day, Nuon was trailing about 7 minutes behind Umicore, a Belgian team. In the second day, Nuon overtook Umicore as the Belgians dealt with a failing steering system:

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It was a long haul on a bumpy road, with crosswinds strong enough to throw a normal vehicle off its course, potentially causing real trouble for the ultra-light, 200-kilogram solar cars. Nuon had to pull onto the shoulder of the highway twice, once to replace a tire that was completely worn down, and once to replace a broken shock damper. Here's a crew member sending Nuna back on the road:

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The road itself is harsh enough, but there's more to this race than distance. First off, there's the road kill: One of Nuon's support cars drives up to an hour ahead to assess upcoming weather and road conditions, with a designated shoveler who does the dirty work of removing downed kangaroos from Nuna's path.

And road trains: The very long trucks, often pulling three trailers, can be wider than their lanes and generate a strong gust of wind as they pass, enough to blow the hatch open off the top of a solar car, as happened to one of Nuna's drivers.

And the dust devils: These upwellings of air, similar to small tornadoes, stir up dust and debris and can slam into passing vehicles with surprising force.

So after a day of showers and battery-charging in Alice Springs, the teams will put their solar cars back on the road Wednesday morning and, if all goes well, reach Adelaide in two days.

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