The University of Michigan Solar Car Team took top honors at the 2012 American Solar Challenge. Despite being hobbled by bad weather throughout the race, their car Quantum still beat the field and came out ahead of the pack for an impressive fourth time in a row. Quantum completed the race in 44 hours, 36 minutes and 21 seconds, besting second-place finisher Iowa State University. The team from Principia College came in third.
American Solar Challenge is a biennial 1,650-mile competition for individually engineered solar-powered vehicles that kicks off in Rochester New, York, and terminates in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since the event was first held in 1990, a team from University of Michigan has won the competition 7 times. Their 1990 car, Sunrunner, was the winner of the inaugural race, and it set a record by finishing more than ten hours ahead of its nearest competitor, a gap that wasn’t bested until another UM vehicle, Continuum, won in 2008.
This year participants were contending with additional challenges due to rainy and cloudy conditions during the second and the last day of the race. It was the heavy rain on day two that allowed UM to open up a 2-hour lead on its competitors who had to compensate for low power levels by reducing their speed.
The lead continued to increase throughout the race to more than ten hours, however a bad storm on the last day of racing forced U-M to pull over a few times to adjust the vehicle in the rain, once for “irregular rotation of the vehicle.”
“We’ve tested the car extensively in the rain, and each of our drivers have practiced in the rain, so that really gave us an advantage,” said mechanical engineering student and 2012 lead strategist A.J. Trublowksi. “While our overall strategy stayed mostly the same, we definitely had to make some adjustments to adverse weather conditions.”
Overall, bad weather has always been one of the most difficult challenges to overcome in the competition. Rachel Kramer, the 2011 race manager, explained that when inclement conditions are expected the main control of of the car’s speed and tactics pass to the team’s strategy unit. Still, even in competition, the first priority of all participants is safety.
This year’s route was more difficult than in the previous years since longer portions were routed through urban areas to allow more spectators to enjoy the race.
“This was a very interesting and difficult route,” said Mazur. “The varying places we were driving made things a challenge from a navigation standpoint. We had to deal with heavy traffic and dangerous drivers on busy roads often.”
The U-M team raced Quantum, its lightest-ever vehicle that finished third in the World Solar Challenge in Australia last fall. Quantum weighs a full 200 pounds less than its most recent predecessor, and it is 30 percent more aerodynamic.