Australia’s premier motor sporting event: it’s not what you think
01 Nov 2015 lucyejwoods
A silent metallic bullet whooshes past. Sleek, with aerodynamic curves and tinted windows. The vehicle slides round the black tarmac neck of the race track, charging silently past stunned spectators at speeds of over 100km per hour. This, is Australia’s number one motor sporting event: the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (WSC).
The WSC is a biannual race straight down the middle of Australia: starting in Darwin and finishing in Adelaide. Since its inception in 1987, the WSC has been a showground for university teams to test new ideas. Here, nightrider doppelgangers and cars worthy of James Bond’s envy sit alongside weekender go-karts and four-seat family buses with cup holders and enough boot space for two Alsatians.
Not just a solar challenge
The 2015 WSC saw 46 universities from 25 countries attempt to complete the 3,000km journey – a distance that troubles average petrol motorists in commercial cars – all without using a drop of fossil fuel. And fuel is just the headline challenge.
Before setting off, students are reminded to drink constantly, to wear hats and sun cream, to use jungle strength mosquito repellent and to wear heavy shoes to startle poisonous snakes and spiders. The teams have to navigate red dust storms, or “dust devils” and drive in exhausting desert heat before setting up camp in the Australian outback.
As the race takes a few days, teams have to stop at night to rest, but also, as kangaroos are nocturnal, to avoid kangaroo-related totalling of vehicles.
Carrion-loving birds then scavenge road-kill remains, adding to the number of hazards drivers need to avoid during the day.
The Stuart Highway route also requires drivers to get along with titanic delivery vehicles that can be 50 meters long and weigh nearly 200 tonnes, called road trains.
Don’t we already have electric vehicles?
To keep roads safe, traffic police follow the WSC. This year one speed report caught a solar car (luckily in a speed limit free zone) going at 130km per hour. For comparison, at Formula E, the Formula One of electric vehicles, the top speed is 140km per hour. To keep this high speed constant, Formula E requires one whole, entire car, per half hour of driving.
The student-built solar cars don’t just out-do Formula E cars by lasting longer than half an hour, they have further range than existing electric vehicles. Dutch competitors, and winners of the 2015 Cruiser Class, Team Eindhoven, says electric cars available now have around 60km driving range, but their car, named ‘Stella Lux’, “did 1,500km on a single charge with an average speed of 80km.”
In sunny climates, these solar powered cars outdo petrol, and hybrid petrol-electric cars’ range, using the sun to re-juice, instead of needing a petrol pump. At the finish line in Adelaide, a spokesman for lead WSC sponsor, Mitsubishi explains: “when you put your foot down” in a hybrid electric vehicle, the car changes from electricity to petrol, “for more power.”
But with a solar car, “you can use just the sun for a cruising speed of around 100km per hour,” says Japanese team, Tokai.
Most urban car journeys are under 60km. And in 2008 the average speed of European urban traffic was 19-35km per hour, and most speed limits enforced globally are under 100km per hour; solar powered cars could meet the requirements for many car users across the world.
The University of New South Wales’ team adds, when the car is parked, just “flip the boot, face it towards the sun and [the car] charges without having to plug it in.”
The key obstacle car manufacturers face in delivering solar powered vehicles to the market, is dependency on weather conditions and efficiency. “On a cloudy day, you cannot drive as fast,” says UNSW.
In terms of efficiency, solar power is “only 20% efficient right now,” says a spokesman for lead WSC sponsor, Mitsubishi. “When it is 50%, it will be a game changer.”
But as well as requiring a weather report, solar cars look, well, different: their body work is mostly solar panels. “This is a major psychological thing to get over”, says UNSW.
Solar powered cars will not become common place “unless we change perceptions,” says Singapore Polytechnic’s team, Sunspec. “We need to popularise these cars in the media and for the public.”
There are also “no creature comforts like air conditioning,” in the contender vehicles says WSC event director, Chris Selwood, along with, “issues of political will and commercial reality.”
However, every solar car competing “is one step closer to commercial cars,” says Eindhoven – with some attractive new features impossible to get from petrol cars.
Eindhoven’s car for example, is ‘energy positive’; it harnesses more energy than it uses. Based on the average Dutch, urban commute, Selwood says “if you parked [Eindhoven] in the driveway, it could complete your commute,” and then, “you check your iPhone app to see if there is enough energy left, and you can power your house!”
When mobile phones evolved to smart phones, convenient weekly charging was traded for chore-like daily charging, in return for bigger screens, Wi-Fi and more powerful processors. The same thing could happen for cars, says Selwood. Knowing your electric car is charging on the porch and powering your fridge and TV could trump leaving your petrol car in the garage – where it is currently doing nothing.
But until commercialisation, the expense, time (most cars take two years to build) and effort needed to produce solar powered motoring-protégées, is paid for solely in university-student passion.
Each WSC team has a unique story: Thailand’s Siam Tech team entered mere months before the start date, building a solar car on a meagre budget of US$11,000 (some more fortunate teams spend millions). There’s the only team to make it from the Middle East, Iran’s University of Tehran and the UK Cambridge University team who re-entered after a demoralising crash in 2013’s WSC. Many teams are first timers who struggled to win sponsorship, faced language and visa barriers, faced technology sourcing issues and road testing restrictions, or simply missed coursework deadlines, preferring to attend solar car test drives instead.
Highlighting the atmosphere of the WSC, the ‘Spirit of David Fewchuk’ award went to the observers, team members and volunteers who assisted Malaysia’s team ‘Stringray’ when its car burst into flames just a few kilometers from the start in Darwin. No one was hurt, and Stingray was rebuilt and made it to the finishing parade in Adelaide.
So when will you be able to buy your own sun fuelled vehicle?
Australian actor, car enthusiast and WSC Ambassador, Shane Jacobson says, “This technology is on our doorstep.”
Teams, observers and experts predicted everything from tomorrow to not in 50 years. But the average guess was a 10-15 year wait before solar cars are widely available. “It’s challenging to predict when we’ll be able to buy solar-powered vehicles […] off a car dealership lot. But that shouldn’t deter efforts to innovate relentlessly, with the hope of one day mainstreaming solar-powered modes of transportation,” says Australian Managing Director for SunPower, Chris O’Brien (many WSC cars use SunPower panels).
The same technology powering homes and businesses, entire countries and even space stations is the same technology the WSC applies to everyday car trips, “that’s pretty incredible,” says O’Brien.