Stanford students send new car to World Solar Challenge

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ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Stanford students send new car to World Solar Challenge
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A group of Stanford's finest young engineers will travel to Australia to compete in the World Solar Challenge with a car that runs only on sunlight.

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Every two years, a group of Stanford's finest young engineers make a trip to Australia with a very funny-looking car. It's a competition that will put their skills to the ultimate test and might just land them jobs when they graduate.

The door slamming shut is about the loudest noise you'll hear out of this car.

In just a few months, the car will be quietly zipping through the Australian outback in a five-day race called the World Solar Challenge, its tiny motors powered by nothing but sunlight.

They say they can get between four-five horse power and that's all the torque they'll get, even though the entire car is covered in solar cells.

"Imagine running a toaster and trying to have your car run on that amount of energy," Darren Chen, the engineering lead, said.

But Stanford students have gotten good at this. We were there two years ago as they finished their last car, called "Luminos." It placed fourth in the race -- the best Stanford's ever done.

The design of Luminos was all about aerodynamics, but this new car takes it to the extreme.

"The major differences you might notice are that we now have the driver on the right side and the battery pack on the left side. The previous car you saw had a driver right in the middle," Chen said.

That got them a 10 percent improvement in the wind tunnel. But solving one engineering problem created another -- Now, the steering wheel was off-center.

"Which if you think about it every single car on the road has that, but for us, that was very complicated," solar car driver Rachel Abril said.

With all the work that's gone into this car, getting to be the one who drives it sounds pretty glamorous. It turns out it's actually kind of grueling, even more so than the last car, this one is definitely not built for comfort.

"We wanted to be more aggressive with our design, so we made the driver compartment smaller," Abril said.

The temperatures inside can reach 100 degrees and forget about mirrors. A scout car up ahead can look out for wildlife, such as kangaroos.

Win or lose, solar car alumni have gone on to work at Tesla and on Google's self-driving cars.