Campus Life

Traversing the Oregon Trail by… solar car?

SEVT and the 2018 American Solar Challenge

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Most competing teams in the American Solar Challenge pose for a group photo. MIT SEVT is featured at the bottom right.
Courtesy of MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team
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Teams charge their battery packs at Scotts Bluff National Monument after a day of racing.
Courtesy of MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team
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Lightning from an oncoming hail and thunderstorm caught on camera.
Courtesy of MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team

This summer, I drove across the country in a solar-powered car. Yep, never thought I’d say that.

To be specific, my team and I completed a 1,762.7 mile race from Nebraska to Oregon in our homemade solar-powered car, named Flux. We made it from the start to the finish line all on solar power and a single battery charge, and it was no easy feat.

Some background: I am a member of MIT’s Solar Electric Vehicle Team, one of the student clubs sponsored by the Edgerton Center. We’re a group of 20 or so students whose idea of fun is getting together on weekends to design, build, and test our solar car and then push it (and ourselves) to the limit in a grueling endurance race every two or three years.

This summer’s American Solar Challenge was the first race that any current SEVT members had attended. So it was a fantastic feeling when we finished in fifth place, right behind some of the top teams in the world, including Western Sydney and the University of Michigan. In total, of the roughly 20 teams who came to compete, only six teams completed the race.

The entire solar challenge lasted about 2.5 weeks and was split into three portions: the testing, the qualification track event, and the road race itself. The first few days were dedicated to safety inspections and ensuring that our car met regulations. Then, we moved to dynamic testing, where we slammed on the brakes repeatedly to prove that our car could handle real road conditions. We had to scramble to fix some issues, but we were able to qualify for the next round at the last minute.

After passing the tests, we got on a race car track with the other teams and competed in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. This final qualifying race required us to complete either 96 laps (200 miles) in one day or 143 laps (300 miles) in two consecutive days to prove that our car could handle sharp turns and run reliably in the road event.

As one of the drivers, I have to say that this part was pretty exciting. I felt like a real race car driver, passing other cars, navigating the shortest path for turns, cranking to high speeds on straightaways, and revving my battery. I even got to spin out! And that, my friends, was how we discovered a major issue with our suspension system on the first day, which we spent the rest of the day fixing. (At the end of the race, we won a box of donuts for “attempting circular motion.”) We finished our required laps on the second day in fourth place and moved on to the nine-day road trip.

Along the Oregon Trail, stopping points were located at national parks and museums, where we camped and went hiking. Some of the highlights included Scott’s Bluff and Craters of the Moon, a national dark sky zone where we woke up at 3 a.m. to see shooting stars, the Milky Way, and incredible constellations. We also stopped at random motels and sketchy campgrounds along the way. Scattered throughout endless hours of driving were high-adrenaline encounters with thunderstorms, hail, and high-speed winds. Although the car sustained some scratches and dents from our driver’s canopy flying off into the road several times, it survived to finish strong.

Through all these lovely experiences, we came together as a team, worked hard together, and found out that duct tape and velcro can fix just about anything. In all honesty, it was incredible to complete the race with such an amazing group of people, all of whom had put their literal blood, sweat, and tears into making Flux run. Solving our mechanical issues required ingenuity and teamwork, and from this process we all grew immensely as engineers and as people.

Moving forward, we will soon begin designing our next vehicle, which will be faster, more efficient, and more awesome than Flux. We intend to use what we learned at the American Solar Challenge to improve our suspension, braking system, aerodynamics, and weight distribution for a car that is sure to perform well at the next race.

P.S. We could use help! (I am shameless.) We take new members any time, with no prior experience necessary. New members learn hands-on engineering techniques from experienced members, get access to our shop, and get to make new friends! Just email or visit our website for more info. (Seriously, I joined the team with NO engineering experience, and now I want to major in mechanical engineering.)

Wendy Trattner is a 2021 in Mechanical Engineering and a member of MIT’s Solar Electric Vehicle Team.