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UM Solar Car Team Wins A Rainy American Solar Challenge

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The University of Michigan's North American champion 2012 solar car.

The University of Michigan’s North American champion 2012 solar car.

(credit: istock) Technology Report
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ANN ARBOR — Despite being challenged by extreme weather conditions along the way, the University of Michigan Solar Car Team has won the 2012 American Solar Challenge with their car Quantum for a fourth consecutive American title.

The eight-day, biennial 1,650-mile competition for solar-powered vehicles started in Rochester, N.Y., on July 14 and ended in St. Paul, Minn., Saturday. The UM car crossed the finish line at around 2:30 p.m. Central time, for a final elapsed running time of just under 45 hours.

Coming in second and third in the competition of 18 schools were Iowa State University and Principia College. Only 11 of the original entrants finished the race. Michigan State University’s solar racer, unfortunately, did not finish. But Western Michigan University’s Sunseeker finished eighth, ahead of such notable schools as MIT. WMU also won the event’s Sportsmanship Award.

This is the seventh North American title for the University of Michigan, which won the inaugural event in 1990 with its first car, the Sunrunner.

“It is exciting and a relief,” said crew chief and recent electrical engineering grad Ryan Mazur. “We have proven that Quantum is a great car and made all our alumni proud.”

The racers encountered some bad weather conditions on the route, including intense rain on the second and last day of racing. UM took advantage of the weather on day two, acquiring a two-hour lead as other teams hampered by the rain were forced to drive slower to preserve their energy.

The lead continued to increase throughout the race to almost 10 hours. However, a bad storm on the last day of racing forced UM to pull over a few times to adjust the vehicle in the rain, once for “irregular rotation of the vehicle.”

“We’ve tested the car extensively in the rain, and each of our drivers has practiced in the rain, so that really gave us an advantage,” said mechanical engineering student and 2012 lead strategist A.J. Trublowksi. “While our overall strategy stayed mostly the same, we definitely had to make some adjustments to adverse weather conditions.”

Racing in bad weather is always a challenge. According to 2011 race manager Rachel Kramer, the teams’ strategy units will usually take the lead on speed and tactics, but safety is always a concern.

“You need a lot of experience and talented people in bad weather, and a lot of communication between the driver and the rest of the team,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the driver — it’s their call when safety is an issue.”

Compared with previous routes, the 2012 path cut through more cities and towns, allowing for more encounters with fans, but also increasing the difficulty for the teams.

“This was a very interesting and difficult route,” Mazur said. “The varying places we were driving made things a challenge from a navigation standpoint. We had to deal with heavy traffic and dangerous drivers on busy roads often.”

Quantum, UM’s lightest-ever vehicle, finished third in the World Solar Challenge in Australia last fall. It weighs a full 200 pounds less than its most recent predecessor, and it is 30 percent more aerodynamic.

The UM Solar Car Team has finished third in the World Solar Challenge five times, most recently in 2011. With more than 100 students from schools and colleges across the university, UM Solar Car is one of the largest student organizations on campus.

“The atmosphere on solar car is unlike anything I have ever experienced before,” said race manager Jordan Feight, an atmospheric and oceanic space sciences student. “The dedication and commitment to push beyond what was previously possible is simply amazing. There has been no class that has come to close to paralleling the knowledge I have picked up being on the solar car team.”

Major sponsors of the UM Solar Car team include IMRA America, Michigan Engineering, Ford and General Motors.

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