Solar car tops student's dreams

Publish Date: 07/10/1995

Rebecca Burtman
Staff Reporter

Instead of spending spare time relaxing like many of their peers, dozens of University students pledged their free time to the Aurora-II solar-vehicle project. Their dedication paid off.

The students in the project brought the University's second entrant in the biennial Sunrayce to a second-place finish June 29 after 10 days of racing from Indianapolis to Golden, Colo.

At a ceremony Friday, University President Nils Hasselmo joined Regent William Hogan, acting Institute of Technology Dean Willard Miller and Goldy Gopher in welcoming the team back from the event.

The Aurora-II beat all but one of 37 other solar cars from colleges throughout North America. Cars in the race ran using only power from the sun.

Co-project manager Paul Kelsey said second place was more than anyone on the team had hoped for. He said going into the race, team members wanted merely to stay in the top 10. Their car finished barely 17 minutes behind the winning entry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The third-place car crossed the finish line more than three hours after Aurora-II.

Three drivers rotated through half-day shifts during the course of the race. Driver Lance Molby said they spent each shift semi-reclined in a 95-degree cockpit while concentrating on following race rules and keeping the car on the road.

A cruise control device made it easier for drivers to obey posted speed limits. Support personnel in lead and chase vehicles monitored power usage and other car functions and communicated results to the drivers through a headset.

Logistics team leader Charles Habermann said he received the most satisfaction from working on a car using an alternative energy source. He said people along the race route asked if future solar cars would look like the compact cars in the race.

"Where am I going to put my groceries?" an observer asked him.

Habermann said he thinks future solar cars sold to the run-of-the-mill consumer will look more or less like today's vehicles.

But no matter the reason for joining, team members said once they got involved with the car, they were hooked.

"Once you get bit, it'a a bug you can't shake," said team member Michael Nemeth.

Mechanical engineering professor Patrick Starr said students on the team don't realize it now, but they are gaining experience employers can't wait to take advantage of. General Motors Corp. and Hughes Aircraft Co. hosted meals for race participants in order to cultivate potential employees.

When the University group raced the Aurora-I in 1993, participants finished 21st.

More than 50 students from various Institute of Technology departments have worked on the car's design over the past three years.