Those who know me already know that I am a huge fan of solar car racing, in particular the University of Michigan Solar Car Team (my alma mater). While I think the technology is pretty cool, what this project is really about is educating and training talented students in a hands-on, goal-driven environment that is very akin to corporate startups.
So a little bit of background on solar car racing is in order after which you’ll get my somewhat odd title to this blog post. The first "real" solar car race was held back in 1987, 20 years ago this month. The race was won by General Motors whose car, Sunraycer, pretty much defined the design of all the solar cars that would come over the next couple of decades. Held every two or three years, some 50 to 80 teams compete for the title of world champions. I estimate that over this period something like $250MM has been invested in designing, building and racing these cars. The races are quite challenging; for one thing they are held on a 3,000 km course through the Australian Outback. Student teams compete alongside cars fielded by corporations.
Anyway, I’d like to highlight one point I made previously and that is that essentially every team that made a credible challenge for the world championship essentially followed the design of Sunraycer. Namely, their car has an aerodynamic shape with solar cells that power batteries that drive an electric motor. There were numerous "tweaks" over the years testing 3 or 4 wheels, different types of batteries, different types of solar cells, but all essentially the same paradigm.
But this week, Michigan unveiled their latest car, Continuum, which has shattered the status quo. In a nut shell, what they have done is incorporated lenses on the car which serve to concentrate the solar radiation on ultra high efficiency cells. These modules are then able to track the sun over the course of the day. If you look closely at the picture below, you’ll see the concentrators in the middle of the car.
So now about the title, "risk." Over the years, I have been an adviser to the Michigan team. When the latest group started two years ago, I greeted them like all of the new teams over the years by telling them about "Michigan tradition." Michigan, with 4 national championships in solar car racing, is the winningest US team in the brainsport. After six months or so, the team floated the idea of using concentrators. I told them it was a terrible idea and expected that to be the last of it. But no, they came back with detailed designs. Becoming a bit worried, I began reaching out to friends to "talk some sense into these kids." I spoke with a close friend who is an engineer for NASA and quite possibly the smartest guy I know. I reached out to a friend who was captain of the 1993 Stanford team and had tried something similar (unsuccessfully). I begged them all to tell the new kids they were crazy.
Anyway, to the team’s credit, they pressed on despite otherwise knowledgeable people telling them this was a bad idea. A long story short, I am thoroughly impressed with the team’s perseverance in the face of such opposition. If it weren’t for young people who ignore older folks who tell them "it’s not possible" no one would take risks, progress would be slower and life would be boring.
However the team finishes, I’m proud of their accomplishments. Go Blue!