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"We didn't want to have a one hit wonder–we wanted to restore a legacy." Joe Lambert
The University of Michigan Solar Car Team has been fighting to be recognized as the top solar car team in the world, an accolade it has yet to earn over its 25-year history of racing.
While the team has established a strong lineage of engineers, business leaders, managers, and creatives over the years, it continues to go through an ebb and flow of success and failure in its path to perfection.
This constant change in the tide in the past has elevated the legacies of the team’s successful racers to those of giants whose stories help inspire the current team members to push the bounds of what seems possible in shaping their car and their team. But the failures just as significant a role in the future victories of the team as it continues to learn how to be perfect in order to win the World Solar Challenge.
Video by Evan Dougherty, Michigan Solar Car Alumnus and Michigan Engineering Multimedia Producer
Penalties in hindsight
Long-time Michigan Solar Car Team mentor Chito Garcia shakes the hand of Tokai’s driver after the Japanese team overtook Aurum with 30 miles to go, nabbing third place. Photo by Evan Dougherty.
Because this was such a tight race, penalties may have played a role in the outcome.
As we’ve said before, this was the closest World Solar Challenge in the race’s history. In 2013, Nuon won by several hours. But his time, it won by minutes and the top five teams finished within 80 minutes.
To get a better understanding of how penalty calls are made and what exactly happened with the top teams this year, we talked to chief safety officer, Peter Schloithe.
An incident between first- and second-place teams Nuon and Twente was much discussed after the race. The teams finished just minutes apart. Twente reports that its solar car driver had to slam on the brakes after Nuon’s car merged back into its lane after passing. The vehicles were approaching a no-passing zone.
“We had to brake to make it safe,” said Twente spokesperson Justine Wolters. “It didn’t feel right. We don’t want to look like bad losers, but it’s still a bit sad that it had to be like this.”
Passing opponents on the road is obviously fine, but it’s not supposed to require solar cars to brake. Accelerating back up to intended set speed uses more energy than maintaining speed, and these cars are playing to finish with empty batteries. They don’t have extra energy to burn.
Schloithe confirmed that it occurred, but he said GPS data shows Twente speeding up during the maneuver (which is a no-no), leaving the fault of the incident ambiguous. Ruling on the field: no penalty.
If you’ve been following here, you know about the incident with the squads jockeying for third—Michigan and Tokai. To recap: Tokai’s Challenger solar car attempted to pass Michigan’s caravan before Michigan had confirmed it was safe. Challenger pulled into the passing lane, only to be greeted by an oncoming vehicle. Challenger quickly veered back to safety, but in the process, ran Michigan’s Chase vehicle off the road. “Their solar car was our Chase vehicle for a while,” said Perry Benson on the Michigan team.
Photo courtesy of Punch Powertrain.
Tokai apparently served 15 minutes for it. And this was its second penalty. Tokai appealed, arguing that a tarp in a trailer behind Michigan’s vehicle was obscuring its radio channel. Didn’t fly with the refs. That said, Schloithe doesn’t think 15 minutes was enough, considering the severity of the incident. (While he is the chief safety officer, it’s the clerk of the course who decides how long penalties will be.)
“I think they should have gotten more time for that,” he said.
Why didn’t they? Perhaps because the clerk ruled on it prior to receiving any photos or video footage of it, he explained. In any case, it’s too late to change the ruling.
Tokai, which beat Michigan by about four minutes, got 15 for its second penalty. Punch Powertrain was held back a full hour for abruptly overtaking another team. It already had been given a short penalty for its media vehicle driving recklessly. The team appealed, to no avail.
Punch finished in fifth place with a time of 39 hours and 19 minutes. It came in just 24 minutes after Michigan. Had its 1-hour penalty been more like 15 minutes, the place order could have been different.
Since questionable moves are a part of solar car racing in the same way they are part of football, a process for both assigning penalties and protesting them are baked into the design of the race. Observers who ride with the teams watch their behavior on the road. They report any sketchy or unsafe actions to mission control back in Adelaide. Observers always give written descriptions. They include photos or video if they have it. Then the clerk of the course decides how long to detain the penalized team at its next mandatory control stop.
The process is quite subjective. It depends on how an incident is described, and, also, how jumpy an observer is. The fact that there’s not always visual evidence means it isn’t always a just process. And there’s no rubric to help observers assess severity or for the clerk to standardize penalty times. The American Solar Challenge rules are a bit more regimented in that regard.
Schloithe says the WSC has looked at standardizing penalties, but they haven’t been able to come up with anything workable.
“I’d still like to see a scale,” he said. But I don’t know how to do it to make it fair. Every incident is so different.“
The teams are not dwelling on the technicalities.
“Before the race, if you had said I’d be happy with fourth, I’d have said ‘absolutely not,’” said Michigan’s Michael Katz. “But having seen how tough this race is and how much we fought for it, I’m proud of how we finished.”
Post by Nicole Casal Moore, Michigan Engineering science writer (@ncm140) and Cara Gonzalez, Michigan Engineering web writer (@bookofcara).
Below: In keeping with tradition, students from Michigan and Tokai jump in the fountain near Victoria Square in Adelaide at the finish line. Photo by Evan Dougherty.
Team leader Pavan Naik congratulates driver Ryder Liu after he crosses the finish line in fourth place.
Michigan hung onto third place until the last 30 miles of their 1,800-mile journey.
Clouds had covered our campsite on the morning of the final race day, so the team wasn’t able to get as much of a charge as they would have liked. Nevertheless, the mood was cheerful. Silly, even.
“One sad sunbeam,” one team member said, pointing towards the mountains in the distance at a small opening in the clouds.
“It’s charging a cow,” another added.
Everyone knew they were headed back to civilization and that the team and the car had come so far. The closest competitor Tokai would have the same weather, too, so we all anticipated cruising into Adelaide in our current position, with team Tokai about 12 miles behind us.
But then, shortly after launch, some chatter about a motor came over the radio. It wasn’t clear there was a problem until we in the media van heard Aurum’s set speed was around 52 mph. The previous afternoon, we’d been doing 65 or higher.
Michigan’s media van hung back in Tokai’s caravan to clock it. (This is common. We assumed a Scout van from Tokai was up with Aurum.)
Tokai’s Challenger was going 66. Uh-oh. It was quiet in our van.
As the miles passed, we reported Challenger’s position to the rest of Aurum’s caravan. The tone of the “copy that”s got gloomier as the number of kilometers between the teams got smaller. Traffic picked up. Challenger seemed to fishtail in the wind. At one point, a semi merged between it and its Chase vehicle.
With about 35 miles to go, the rival car was upon us. It passed, and team leader Pavan Naik, who was driving the media van, rested his head on his hand.
Challenger in the right lane passes Aurum. Photo by Evan Dougherty.
The media van passed both caravans ourselves. Tokai’s driver waved. Maybe he does that to all passing media vans.
There had been talk of penalties for the Japanese team, and we held out hope there were minutes the team hadn’t serve. Minutes that would be added to its finish time. All Michigan needed were minutes.
At the finish, though, officials weren’t aware of any penalties.
Tokai’s team was celebrating. Just last night, they had been strategizing about how they could possibly overtake Michigan, said team translator
Ahmed Ashour. “We didn’t think there was a way.”
Yet here the teams were in Adelaide, the blue and white ahead of the blue and maize. Michigan’s final time was 34
hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds. We think Michigan finished closer to the leader than ever before. Tokai’s time was about four minutes faster that U-M’s.
While the team was disappointed, the students didn’t let the place-order dampen their pride. They had finished fourth of 29 teams among an elite class of engineers and adventurers. And it had been so tight that in other years, their time would have earned them a spot on the podium.
“I’m proud that we kept it this close,” said head strategist Leda Daehler. “It was so, so close. Any little mistake made a difference and this year we had a couple mistakes that added up. Other years, they might not have mattered. But I’m proud of this car we built. And I’m proud of everyone on the team. We did a great job.”
Michigan was the first American team to cross the finish line. Photo by Evan Dougherty.
Congratulate the team on tumblr.
Post by Nicole Casal Moore, Michigan Engineering science writer, @ncm140