XXXX: University of Michigan entered Infinium and came in third. (Photo: University of Michigan)
The sun shone in, and many of the solar racers made it all the way to the finish line in Adelaide. If you’re going to run a race for cars powered by the sun, central Australia’s Outback, 1,800 miles from north to south, makes a lot of sense. And so it has proved: Since 1987, the Global Green Challenge has run nine times, with this year more than 30 homemade contenders that, more than a little, resemble space ships with wheels.
This year’s winner was #60, “Tokai Challenger,” from Tokai University in Japan. The Tokai team led from the beginning, and one factor (besides the stellar car build and the Sharp solar panels) may have been the presence behind the wheel of a ringer, Kenjiro Shinozuka, who was the first Japanese racer to win the Paris to Dakar Rally (in 1997). The race is not a student-only event, so bringing in the pros is apparently not frowned upon.
Tokai had a near-faultless run, marred only by a flat tire 1,750 miles from the Darwin start. The second-place finisher was the usual victor: The Nuon team from the Netherlands, which won the consecutive events in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Here are some video scenes from Day Five, courtesy of the Nuon Solar Team. It's OK if you don't speak Dutch:
The World Car Challenge was inspired by a cross-Australia run adventurer Hans Tholstrup made in a solar car, “Quiet Achiever,” in 1982. The first organized event in 1987 was a celebrated one, open to all, and famously won by General Motors’ “Sunraycer.” That car (which looks much as the racers do today) was partly built by AeroVironment and its brilliant founder, Paul MacCready, and the collaboration led to future GM work on what became the EV-1 electric car.
Finishing third was a team from the University of Michigan which, amazingly enough, has finished third now less than three other times. “I don’t know what we need to do to get over that hump, but third is still a pretty good result,” said team leader Steven Durbin, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering.
Michigan’s contender, “Infinium,” uses an electric motor of just two horsepower, which means it’s really slow off the line but is also so aerodynamic that once it’s moving it can maintain normal highway speeds and beyond. Braking wastes a lot of energy, so drivers try to use regenerative braking as much as possible.
Michigan’s team had a couple of tire changes, but nobody ended up with heat stroke or other injuries and the car — which is likely to be displayed at this year’s Detroit Auto Show — is intact.
The MIT team came in fifth with “Eleanor,” which reportedly has several technical updates from its previous contender, “Tesseract.” These include a more upright seating position for the driver (required by new rules), a conventional steering wheel to replace the handlebars in Tesseract, and fixed fairings for allow the car to grab onto crosswinds.
Some cars are still on the road as of this writing, and one poor team from Switzerland managed to cover exactly zero miles. A Belgian team made it 380. To the victor goes the spoils: The Tokai Challenger team gets, besides the traditional bath in champagne, a parade into Adelaide and a ceremony in Victoria Square.
There was also a separate Global Green Challenge event for production cars, which allowed Internet service provider Simon Hackett and co-driver Emilis Prelgauskas to set what appears to be a world mileage record for a single charge: 313 miles in a Tesla Roadster. The milestone was set on the road from Alice Springs to Coober Peddy with a sealed charge port and just three miles left on the charge at the end.
The previous distance record was also held by a Tesla Roadster, which managed to complete the entire 241 miles of the Rallye Monte Carlo d’Energies Alternatives on one charge (with 38 miles to spare). The Roadster is the only EV with more than a 200-mile range on batteries.
According to Hackett in an e-mail to Tesla, “The security seal was applied to the charge port door when we started the journey. As this is being done as part of the Global Green Challenge, we have a full set of official verifiers here who will attest to the results and to achieving the outcome. We were followed along the journey by our support crew and a documentary film crew — so we have it on film.”
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