Stanford students to compete with solar car

July 9, 2013 7:56:42 PM PDT
Every day more hybrid and electric cars are on the roads, but what about a car you never need to plug in or fill up? Well, they're building one at Stanford and they are about to drive all the way across Australia, powered by nothing but the sun.

The vehicle is not roomy or luxurious and it's got the smallest steering wheel you've ever seen, but it's not built for comfort. Stanford's little car is built to win.

It's not just any race. A group of Stanford undergrads put it together from scratch for a 2,000 mile journey across the Australian outback, powered entirely by the sun.

"These are essentially the same as the cells that you would put on your house. They're just much higher efficiency," said Nathan Golshan, the mechanical engineering team lead.

Stanford has entered the solar challenge before, but this time they have a bold new design, which has been tested in a wind tunnel. Every curve is made to balance sun exposure with aerodynamics. Every maneuver, designed to conserve each precious drop of power.

"We actually go slower when it's sunny if we know there's a cloudy patch ahead or behind, and we go fast through the cloudy patch and slow through the sunny patch, so we get the same average speed, but collect more sunlight," said Golshan.

The car does all that while keeping the driver safe.

"Six-point harness and, this right here -- this roll cage -- for safety," said

Though it has all the trappings of a race car, the solar car actually isn't much of a speed demon. It's built for the long haul, driving consistently day after day where every ounce and every detail counts.

"It's definitely an endurance race, and it's not just about your efficiency, it's making sure your car is tough enough to actually get to the finish line," said Golshan.

At about 55 miles an hour, the best teams will finish in three to four days. It will be the end of a project that's taken a year and a half. The students raise all the money themselves and there's no faculty advisor, but it's become a big part of their education.

"There's a lot to learn about engineering that you can't learn in classes. It's not that they're not trying to teach us, it's just that there's a big difference between, 'Oh, this didn't quite work, but it's OK, I'll get an A-,' and 'This didn't work, you're on the side of the road in Australia,'" said Rachel Fenichel, the software team lead.

In less than two weeks, they'll load the car onto a ship headed down under, for the race in October.

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