Solar car challenges might be obscure, but they helped create Tesla, Google and many of the world's best scientists

Why solar challenges? They’re in the DNA of Tesla, Google for starters

It’s a hot, steamy Saturday in Darwin, and I’m speaking to Cameron Tuesley. He’s the Founder-CEO of a Queensland-based digital and software company, Integral, and a co-founder and director of another called Prohelion.

He’s also a former competitor in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, a biennial technology and innovation initiative that requires competitors, which in 2023 come from about 20 nations, to design, construct and drive solar-powered motor vehicles more than 3,000km from Darwin to Adelaide on the Stuart Highway, through Australia’s Red Centre.

“So, what’s the point of the solar challenge?”

I put that question to Tuesley, gesturing to the sleek, submarine-shaped cars surrounding us. It’s also a question I’ve asked the scientific experts, former and current participants and technology companies at this event all week. After all these years of solar car challenging, no one can buy a brand-new solar car, though one Dutch company called Lightyear, which originated from a solar team, has tried to make it a reality.

Tuesley points me to a calculation he made during a keynote he delivered at a tech symposium earlier in the week.

“The market capitalisation of the companies that have come through here is US$2.5 trillion.”

No hype. Tuesley is actually quite casual when he says it, though he admits most in the audience were blown away by that statement.

“Tesla, and Google are the two biggest ones,” he says, before running off a list of Australian companies he knows have emerged from the competition: drone makers, lucrative software developers, EV tech makers.

“I actually always say that solar car racing has got very little to do with the racing solar cars,” Tuesday adds.

“If you look at what’s fundamentally happening here, we’re doing a big technology testbed-type process.

“You’re developing a very unique skill here, which is the ability to work in a multidisciplinary engineering environment and do something very complicated very quickly with very little money.”

Asking the question of others, I’m met with a consistent reply: thinking about the solar challenge as a motor race or showcase of future passenger vehicles somewhat misses the point.

“It’s a challenge.” The event’s long-time director Chris Selwood consistently hammers that point home when talking to competitors and event-goers.

People look at an outdoor solar car display
Darwin locals tour the starting queue at the 2023 world solar challenge. Credit: Frankie the Creative

The true test is in the exercise of what Selwood describes as a “brain sport” – an exercise of the mind as much as the pedals and steering wheel.

The top teams, which have budgets in the millions, are now using batteries with (they coyly tell me) about 33% more capacity for the same amount of weight as the equivalents used four years ago.

But they can’t fuel those batteries with energy sourced from expensive and spacecraft-quality gallium arsenide solar cells, nor ones made from toxic cadmium telluride or copper indium selenium. These were banned when the regulations were altered to outlaw expensive or environmentally hazardous solar arrays.

Nope, it’s plain old silicon for the most part, though one team from Groningen in the Netherlands has made the switch to perovskite cells – which are highly efficient, less toxic and, as one crew tells me, probably going to be the standard in two years. Some have also considered other organic compounds for cell development.

The market capitalisation of the companies that have come through here is US$2.5 trillion.

Cameron Tuesley

Using a traditional and cheap material like silicon means teams must creatively find ways to maximise efficiency as, sadly, only a fraction of light that hits a cell can be converted into usable energy – most is lost as heat. Solar teams are (as one team official told Cosmos) “optimising the hell” out of their cars to push the solar cell yield as high in the ‘20 percents’ as possible. The brilliance of these teams isn’t so much that they’re extracting the same amount of energy from these cells as a typical home solar system – it’s that they’re working out how to maintain that efficiency through the scorching outback heat for at least four days.

What’s perhaps most mind-blowing is the simplest fact, proven by a quick glance into the garages of pit lane, that these crews consist almost entirely of barely qualified students – probably 9 in 10 are undergrads yet to be handed a parchment.

Big tech and energy innovation has solar racing in their DNA

Cameron Tuesley competed in his first solar race at the ripe old age of 35 when he and collaborator Anthony Prior created ‘Team Arrow’. They never imagined that upstart venture a decade ago would lead to a nation-leading company specialising in mobile energy storage.

Their Queensland-based company – Prohelion – now supplies battery management systems (BMS) to around three-quarters of the teams in the challenge.

Beyond that, Prohelion is hoping its technology can make its way into battery production lines, as the BMS of choice for manufacturers as the world moves increasingly towards electrification. It already has a client list that includes static storage system makers, as well as manufacturers of battery-powered water and air vehicles.

“We work mainly in the lithium-ion space,” Prior says. “They need to work in certain ranges of voltages – if they get too high or too low, they can cause problems. And if the temperature gets too high or too low, they also cause problems, so battery management systems monitor the cells to ensure the battery is being operated within safe limits.”

Anthony prior and cameron tuesley in their old pit garage.
Anthony Prior and Cameron Tuesley in their old pit garage. Credit: Matthew Ward Agius / Cosmos.

Prohelion still builds and supplies a range of technologies for solar car racing teams, but largely, its market is away from passenger automotive. Their products, which are flowing through into home solar systems and other electrified vehicles, have a direct lineage to solar car racing.

That, they say, is the point of solar car challenges. You mightn’t ever buy a solar car, but you might use the technology.

And that technology is big business.

The event itself often points to the fact that both Tesla founder, director and ex-Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel, and Google founder Larry Page raced at the event in the nineties, respectively with the Stanford and Michigan university teams.

Those two companies account for the lion’s share of Tuesley’s US$2.5tn market cap calculation.

Metamako, a computer networking company, was founded by former UNSW ‘Sunswift’ team member David Snowdon (he’s now an expert scientific advisor to the challenge).

Its low-latency, field programmable gate array network products serve companies reliant on ultra-quick information exchanges in finance and telecommunications. Metamako no longer exists, however – it was acquired by Silicon Valley computer networking company Arista (worth about US$60 billion).

Tritium was born when founders Dr David Finn, Dr Paul Sernia and James Kennedy decided to commercialise the motor inverter technology they developed in the early 2000s at the now defunct University of Queensland ‘SunShark’ team. About 10 years ago, they pivoted to building fast chargers. Now the company has an American headquarters, NASDAQ listing and its EV fast charger terminals sprouting across 50 countries, from tiny towns in New Zealand to main streets in Monte Carlo.

A man
David Finn. Credit: Supplied

“It was the coming together of a few individuals that had the drive to make it happen,” says Finn. ”I’m always looking [at] employees that I’m hiring –  do they have Formula SAE, solar racing or experience in a team environment where you have to deliver,” he says. “There’s no ‘near enough is good enough’, we got half marks or something. It works, or it doesn’t work.

“That’s what business is about.”

Scooped up out of solar

Tesla sends recruiters to every World Solar Challenge.

Up and down the pit lane they go, shaking hands with student crew members, quizzing them about their experimental designs and grabbing their details.

It’s a story Australian engineer Coco Wong can relate to.

While studying mechanical engineering and physics, she established the Adelaide University team in 2015. Within a year of racing her first solar car, she was flying to California to join one of Tesla’s engineering teams and finished up working for company CEO Elon Musk himself.

A woman standing outside a motor circuit
Coco Wong is now an ambassador for the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. Credit: Matthew Ward Agius / Cosmos.

While she has since moved on from the world-famous carmaker to Zipline –the world’s largest autonomous drone delivery company – she remembers the whirlwind career launch solar racing gave her.

“I always wanted to work in sustainable energy,” Wong says. “That’s what I was passionate about, but there was nothing that was really exciting in that area – it was mostly like oil and gas mining or construction industry.”

The safety and everything about it is dependent on the design work and calculations you’ve done. That’s pretty cool.

Coco Wong

After being ‘ID’d’ by Tesla, she transplanted herself into California life as an energy products engineer, working on the Powerwall. She then switched to industrial battery engineering, and found herself back in South Australia working on the development of what was then the world’s largest battery – the Powerpack ‘big battery’ in Rockdale.

Starting her own solar team gave her, to borrow the expression, a fast-tracked degree from the school of life: the skills people like David Fell look for in their workers and that appeal to major companies like Tesla.

“It gives student engineers the opportunity to solve real-world problems using the skills that they’ve developed in the lecture room,” she says.

“And the stakes are pretty high – you’re seeing a friend in front of you driving this car, this tiny little car being overtaken over road trains, and the safety and everything about it is dependent on the design work and calculations you’ve done. That’s pretty cool.

“There’s always challenges, always learnings, always problem solving on the fly. It requires a lot of resilience… it builds people and develops them in a way that gives them confidence to solve tough challenges.”

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