In 1988, then-student Bill Kaliardos (BSE ME '90, AeroE '90) returned to North Campus after his third stint at the NASA Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center with the U-M AeroE NASA Co-op program. "It's the dry lake bed out in California where they do all the flight testing," explains Kaliardos. "There was lots of tinkering to do. Lots of hands-on work—something I really liked and wanted as part of my academic experience." He had always been a tinkerer. "I remember buying a single solar cell at Radio Shack when I was about 10 years old. There wasn't much I could do with it, but it fed an interest in alternative energy and conservation that stuck with me."
Kaliardos got involved with the U-M Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). They had projects like the baja, formula and methanol conversion cars "that you could get involved with, get your hands dirty and put your theory into practice," explains Kaliardos. One day, a notice came through the SAE office to see if anyone was interested in pursuing a solar car team.
"I jumped at the chance," says Kaliardos. "I thought, 'Oh wow, solar energy and all the hands on stuff that I was interested in. I'll certainly take this one.'" The concept of solar racing was in its infancy and Kaliardos had little understanding of what it was. He had never written anything like the proposal required to get the team up and running. "I'm a procrastinator by nature," admits Kaliardos. "It was due right after spring break. So instead of going on a trip, I ended up borrowing a computer in the dean's administrative offices while the secretary wasn't there. It wasn't a very fun way to spend a cold spring break, that's for sure."
In the end, he produced a document, not knowing whether it was good or bad. "My guess is that the application committee looked at the passion more than the quality," confesses Kaliardos. "I think the legacy of Michigan engineering and our ties to the auto industry helped—we have the potential, just give us a chance. It was an awesome feeling when I found out it was accepted."
Out of 60 proposals, 32 teams were accepted for the 1990 GM Sunrayce. Now Michigan just needed to put together a team that could (from scratch) fund, design, build and race a solar car. After five months of meetings and hard work with a skeleton crew, Kaliardos started looking for a manager to lead the project so he could focus on the design. He had met Susan Fancy (BSE ME '91) through SAE. "She was just getting done with the methanol car project, which ended poorly," recalls Kaliardos. "The one thing I saw in Susan was the fire in her belly. I knew how much it pained her not to have success with the methanol project. Having been through that, she was in a good position to know how to do it better."
"We came in second to last place with a rod knock, which is the last thing that happens before an engine blows up," says Fancy. "I'll never forget, we came back to the auto lab feeling defeated. Bill came up to me and said, 'You know, I wrote a proposal to GM to build a solar car and I decided I don't want to run the team. Do you want to do this?'" Fancy hit the ground running. She helped recruit a team that would lay the foundation for hard work and innovation that still defines the program.
Sunrunner's driver, Paula Finnegan, being congratulated at the finish line of the 1990 GM sunrayce.
Fancy promoted the first mass meeting with the social media of the time, fliers. One hundred and forty people showed up, including Paula Finnegan Jones (BSE IOE '90). "I was not a car girl," says Jones. "Solar racing just inherently catches your imagination. It was different. It was new. It was related to alternative energy. We were the first large cross-functional project on campus that involved so many different schools." Jones would go on to become a team leader and one of the first drivers.
The hard lessons from Fancy's experience with the methanol car focused her energy. The methanol team's lack of financial resources inspired her to recruit students from the business school to tackle fundraising. The sting of a second-to-last-place finish with a floundering car guided her strategy toward reliability. "I was thinking, 'My gosh, let's just make sure we finish the race,'" recalls Fancy.
Reliability became the foundation of their program. They obsessively tested every possible scenario so that the car and team could handle anything that might arise. They drove the race route in advance, digitizing the road grades and speeds—an elaborate and technical endeavor before the age of Google Maps. It led to the development of Sunrunner, a much larger, and consequently slower car than what other teams were building.
"I remember the first time General Motors got the various team leaders together before the race," says Fancy. "Some of the other teams literally laughed at us. I was so hurt. I said, 'You know, we hope to put our best foot forward.'" After a year of sleepless nights and more than 110,000 student hours, it was time to race. Sunrunner was the only car to finish all 11 stages of the 1990 GM Sunrayce unaided. Jones drove the car across the finish line an hour and a half ahead of their closest competitor. The team later took third place at the World Solar Challenge in Australia. Placing first in the American race and third at Worlds is as high as any other Michigan team has gone.