Michigan solar team heads north for final trials

Operating a solar car in a 3000km cross-country challenge every two years is no mean feat, and teams need to ‘bed in’ their cars and test their race management systems, well in advance of the event taking place. 

So when 39 cars line up to start the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Darwin on October 22, there will be plenty of miles already on the clock for these lightweight vehicles. 

For the University of Michigan Solar Car Team, the first taste of pre-event testing for its new car ‘Astrum’ took place in a racetrack north of Adelaide.  

In a previous life, Adelaide International Raceway was used for circuit racing. Nowadays its main straight is most often used for drags, but it provides a unique surface for a solar racing team to prove its new vehicle.  

Astrum zips along the old adelaide international raceway circuit
Astrum zips along the old Adelaide International Raceway circuit. Credit: Matthew Ward Agius/Cosmos Magazine

On the main straight-cum-drag strip, Astrum is put through its paces – straight line speed, dynamic testing of its steering and turning circle review – but on the cracked, potholed, tumbledown banking of the old circuit, it gets a taste of what it might experience on Australis outback roads: bumps, vibrations, changeable winds. 

The University of Michigan team has embedded itself in a nearby hangar for the fortnight it’s already clocked in Australia.  

“We want to make sure the car came across from the United States safely, all of our equipment was okay, refit all of our vehicles – put in radios and servers and computers in to monitor the solar car,” says Will Jones, one of the Michigan team managers.  

“It’s a debug and trial run before we head out to the outback and begin our real testing.” 

Michigan travelled to Adelaide via Melbourne, where it took possession of a fleet of Ford pickups, which will be used as five support vehicles for Astrum during the event. These will perform a range of functions – from monitoring weather conditions to scouting the road for potential hazards 15 minutes ahead of the racer, while a lead and chase car will create a ‘bubble’ around it to ensure the car is protected from other vehicles and hazards. 

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Racetrack testing gives an opportunity to test all of Astrum’s components in a controlled environment. 

But to simulate the race itself, Michigan will head 6 hours north to the tiny highway town Glendambo. Between there and the state border, they will endeavour to recreate the conditions they’ll face on the way back. 

“The road quality on that circuit was in some places probably pretty similar, and in some places, it was worse, than what we’ll see on the Stuart Highway,” Jones says. 

“For us, the most important thing wasn’t necessarily the performance of the vehicle in terms of [solar] efficiency, but just making sure everything is working as we expected in terms of suspension, steering, brakes, and the solar array.  

“At the track, you’re always accelerating, whether that’s turning, stopping or trying to go faster. On the road [near Glendambo] it will be mostly steady state speeds.” 

University of michigan solar car team's 2023 challenger, astrum
Credit: Supplied.

Creating that steady state of speed will be essential for Michigan and other teams currently testing their vehicles on these remote roads.  

These aerodynamically optimized solar cars operate best at a set speed and do so on the relatively straight Stuart Highway that divides Australia’s red centre. 

Michigan will spend 11 days testing before their arrival in Darwin for official scrutineering. This pre-event stint enables, as Jones puts it, the transition from a team of engineers and manufacturers to a fully-fledged race team. That includes a team capable of efficiently operating a solar car and swiftly completing more mundane tasks: part of the next 11 days will be spent practising set-up and pack-down of the team’s on-road campsite. 

“Right now, we’ve done a fair amount of testing, but we’re still maybe more of a design and manufacturing team. Now we’re trying to transition into a race team and a well-oiled operation. 

“When we run the race, we really want to spend every second we were able to, out on the road driving and not fixing repairs or packing up tents, because we’re not prepared or not ready.” 

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