The University of Michigan team unveils its most recent solar car — “the first and only car we’ve designed entirely remotely.”

Pandemic poses a new challenge for Midwest solar car teams

Every two years, solar-powered vehicles race nearly 1,900 miles throughout the Australian outback as part of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge to bring attention to, and foster development of, solar vehicles. The pandemic and global travel restrictions canceled the 2021 event. But before the cancellation, many teams had to quickly rework their vehicle development processes to accommodate a new way of working. 

Midwestern teams make a mark

Teams from Midwestern universities consistently participate in this competition, and many place among the top contenders. In 2019, the University of Michigan teams solar car won third place. It was the only American vehicle to cross the finish line.

In 2017, the University of Minnesota’s car, Eos II, placed fifth in the challenge. Iowa State University competed that same year, but the team was knocked out of the race for missing a checkpoint when the battery pack lost power in bad weather. Still, the team was pleased with their 4-person SUV, which they say proves that solar-powered SUVs will be viable with some further tweaks.

“We built a practical car, and it was incredibly reliable,” said team member Dylan Neal in a news release. We had zero breakdowns the entire race, and we proved that our car could go 230 miles on a moderately sunny day and 180 miles without sun — all while hauling four passengers.”

Process pivot

When the pandemic struck, the solar car teams had to pivot to remote work. Initially, that didn’t seem too difficult. But they soon realized how much they previously relied on in-person collaboration for vehicle creation. 

For example, team members had to learn how to draw on shared electronics screens instead of on a whiteboard in a lab. They also had to account for parts shortages due to supply chain snags and rework certain parts of their designs.

When the University of Michigan team members began to assemble their car for the 2021 challenge, they found that some components didn’t fit together as smoothly as they did in CAD software simulations. They modified the parts to make the design work. 

“This is the first and only car we’ve designed entirely remotely,” Terry Li, the team’s engineering director, said in a news release. “That’s created some issues with systems integration, but we tackled those successfully so far and things are looking up.”

What’s next for Aevum

Last month, the University of Michigan team unveiled their 2021 solar car, Aevum, which is the 16th car since the team’s inception in 1989. 

Aevum didn’t get to race in last year’s Bridgestone World Solar Challenge because the competition was canceled. And it will not race in next year’s competition because it was designed to meet 2021 specifications. 

For example, it met last year’s new requirements that the driver’s seat must accommodate a 6’4” mannequin and that vehicles must use more environmentally friendly silicon solar cells instead of gallium arsenide solar cells

The team also installed solar cells on the canopy over the driver, which they hadn’t done in the past because of wiring complications. And the 2021 model was wider to accommodate more solar cells. 

“We felt that this style of vehicle was most competitive despite that slight increase in vehicle size, and our engineers worked hard to minimize the increase in drag,” said project manager Joseph Harrington

Aevum will serve as an experimental vehicle that the team can use for creating solutions to improve performance and efficiency. It will also run an endurance test and exhibition from New York to Los Angeles, with stops in Kansas City, Missouri, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.