Taking on the World: University of Michigan Solar Car Takes Third

The University of Michigan Solar Car team recently competed in the World Solar Challenge in Australia. Overall, the team achieved an impressive third-place showing after having some incredible setbacks and challenges including the loss of a wheel cover and a massive brush fired that delayed the entire race. The team developed the car from scratch over the course of two years, using SolidWorks to design several elements of the vehicle Quantum. We sat down with team member Chris Hilger and picked his brain about solar car design and thoughts after the race.


1) What big design improvements, if any, were made to Quantum prior to the race? Any last minute adjustments that needed to be made?

We did several weeks of testing before the race. From this, we modified the weight distribution of the car to help it handle better in crosswinds. 


2) Any design lessons that you learned after the World Solar Challenge?

We learned that wind gusts can be much stronger than anticipated, and we needed to design our car to handle well against a strong crosswind gust. Also, we noted the importance of cooling the cells with water or proper ventilation, to ensure they can operate at peak efficiency


3) What was the coolest thing that you got to experience while in Australia?

The coolest thing was being within minutes of the race leader, which is unheard of given the length of the race.

4) What elements of the experience do you think you’ll take with you into your career?

I will take all of the lessons I learned in regard to business development, fundraising, sales and marketing. My dream is to start my own high tech startup, which will require many of those skills to launch the business.


5) What are some of the common misconceptions about working with a solar car?

Many see the car and believe it is more of a science fair project. This could not be further from the truth. Sustainable transportation actually has budgets in the multimillion dollar range, and implements cutting-edge, yet very relevant technologies.


6) Any advice for designers who want to focus on sustainability or green energy?

Always keep the goals in mind. It’s easy to get caught up in one aspect of the car/project, and lose focus on all other relevant portions. For example, a winning team/car requires excellent aerodynamics, solar cells, fundraising, team culture, logistics and talent. If any are lacking, it is very hard to build a successful program.


7) What surprises did you encounter during the design process?

We set very ambitious goals to reduce the weight of the car by 200 lbs. A lot of people were skeptical about the reduction, but once you take a holistic view of the entire car's weight, the ounces begin to add up. In the end, we were able to make the reductions necessary and create a vehicle that was 30 percent more aerodynamic than the previous model. 


Matthew West

SolidWorks alumnus. I like plate reverb, Rat pedals, Thai curry, New Weird fiction, my kids, Vespas, Jazzmasters, my wife & Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not necessarily in that order.