Solar car set to sail for Down Under

August 12, 1999

ANN ARBOR—A semi-trailer full of meticulously organized tools and spare parts supporting the University of Michigan solar car, Maize Blaze, sets sail this weekend from Los Angeles on a slow boat to Australia. It is the first wave in a carefully planned invasion of the land Down Under.
The U-M’s $1.5 million student-built sun car is going to tackle the world’s best in a grueling 1,800-mile race across the middle of the Australian continent. The race begins Oct. 17 in Darwin and finishes by Oct. 26 in Adelaide, on the southern coast. The winners will make the trip in four or five days.
In addition to being a demanding engineering problem, the logistics of getting 20 people, their equipment and the 500-pound glass and kevlar car halfway around the world is daunting too. The trailer goes first, and will be stored in an old airplane hanger in Adelaide. The car and about half the team will fly in mid-September, and then the remaining team members will leave by Sept. 26.
Meanwhile, they’re still busily putting finishing touches on the car, and trying to raise more funds to support their effort.
“It’s kind of been just?yeah, hectic,” said weary team leader Jed Christiansen, who just finished his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at U-M. “The logistics of getting 20 people and all their stuff there—and doing it on the cheap—is just amazing.”
Australian customs officials, for example, wanted a complete inventory of the more than 900 items in the semitrailer, including its weight and cost. “It says a hundred of this size bolt, 40 washers of this size, and so on,” Christiansen said. “We’ve got it really clean and organized now.”
Following the car’s disappointing 17th place finish in this summer’s rain-soaked Sunrayce USA, team members stripped the car’s thousands of solar cells off its back. They found wet spots and charring from leaks in the high-voltage array that provide clues about what went wrong. During the 1,800 mile race from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, the car’s power was a third less than it should have been, but Christiansen is confident they will have those problems beat this time.
Under the wide-open rules of the Australian race, the car is allowed to have state-of-the-art batteries and solar cells, so the team has been putting in long hours installing about $60,000 worth of improvements in some borrowed workshop space off campus.” After we bought new batteries and solar cells, we said ‘there’s no going back now,'” Christiansen said. A lighter suspension system is also being installed.
The desolate course across the Outback is notorious for its thundering “truck-trains,” teeth-rattling cattle crossing grates and the occasional road-kill kangaroo to swerve around, but Christiansen said the car’s chassis is up to the challenge.
“We’ve taken our test chassis out to the Daimler-Chrysler test track near Chelsea where they have some really, really nasty stretches, and it did fine.”
Money is still a problem for the team, however. Business manager Nader Shwayhat, a senior in mechanical engineering, is trying to make affordable flight arrangements and round up some of the extra cash the team will need for logistics. During the month they’re in Adelaide before the race, the team will likely be living with the car in the hangar, Christiansen said. They still have a collection of Coleman sleeping bags that were donated to the 1990 solar car team, and they can shower right across the street at the University of South Australia, Christiansen said.
The camping experience will come in handy: The World Solar Challenge requires teams to stop wherever they are at the end of the racing day and set up camp, even if the dingoes are howling and the nearest town is hundreds of miles away. Unlike previous teams which arranged for a traveling chuck wagon service, the team will probably be carrying all their food and cooking themselves.
To participate in the Maize Blaze’s “Buy-a-Cell” campaign, please call (734) 764-2257 or visit on the Web.
For more information about the World Solar Challenge:

solar car1,800-mile raceaerospace engineeringSunrayce USAmechanical engineering on the Web