2011 WSC Reflections by Chris Cartland

The 2011 Veolia World Solar Challenge (WSC) fueled the single greatest adventure in my life to date. The adventure has been CalSol, or rather the process of working with a team to create the solar vehicle project that we see today. The 2011 Veolia World Solar Challenge brought out every facet of CalSol’s character and thoroughly tested our ability to sustain hardship. The competition is a challenge of epic proportions, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work on a project so meaningful, complex, and rewarding.

The goal is to drive a vehicle 3000 km across Australia as fast as legally possible using only solar energy. This simple objective unleashes a firestorm of unwieldy ramifications that can only be fully understood by living through the action yourself.

I arrived at Hidden Valley Raceway in Darwin on Friday October 7th, 2011 to an empty racetrack except for a few stray solar cars rolling around in the parking lot. The air was hot and humid and the mosquitoes had just begun their assault on our flesh. The team felt physically tired in an unexplored territory with a solar car that didn’t work. The previous two weeks had been mentally taxing and logistically difficult. On top of receiving Impulse from customs, picking up a fleet of support vehicles, learning to drive on the left side of the road, renting a trailer, and purchasing camping supplies for the Outback, the team had been trying to install a brand new electrical system for our solar vehicle, Impulse. In an effort to make Impulse more reliable during the month that Impulse rode a boat to Australia, the new electrical system was designed and fabricated but we never had a chance to test any of the new components.

As I explored the facilities at the racetrack I felt the weight of our endeavor pressing down on my mind. As preparation for the race team members received CPR training, acquired HAM radio licences, committed thousands of hours to make this car roadworthy, and paid for their trip to Australia out of their own pockets. The thought of returning home without driving across Australia was a very real threat, and it was terrifying. I didn’t want to let our members or sponsors down. Volkswagen gave us a fleet of corporate vehicles which we had just driven across the continent to get to the starting line. The pressure was on, and our car didn’t work yet.

Shipping was the first thing we did right. Our car arrived in Australia without a glitch, and even made it through customs while the workers were on strike. While we were working on Impulse, some teams were still fighting for batteries, whole cars, or anything else that might have been quarantined. One of our dedicated members, Jessica Chang, did an outstanding job taking care of hundreds of details regarding shipping logistics.

Once all of the teams arrived in Darwin we witnessed a wide variety of vehicles in various states of completion. From tuning suspension, to installing the solar cell array, each team was working on whatever they needed to make their drive more successful. Since we are all solving the same problems, teams often help each other overcome hurdles. MIT’s batteries got stuck in shipping and didn’t make it in time for the race, but they were able to compete after the University of Michigan let them borrow a spare battery pack. This sort of cooperative competition is unlike any other race in the world.

CalSol’s biggest surprise during the week came when we finished installing the new electrical system and turned the car on. It worked. Anyone who has ever been around a solar car team knows that nothing ever works the first time. Here we were, on the opposite side of the world using a temporary workshop erected from portable tables and powered by dozens of Australia-to-US electrical converters, and this is the first time our design has been so robust that it became plug-and-play. We celebrated by running far more laps around the racetrack than any other team.

The race started on an early Sunday morning at Parliament Square in Darwin, Northern Territory. The atmosphere was surreal and the actions chaotic. Twenty two people loaded up gear into seven vehicles (including Impulse) and positioned themselves throughout the city. The solar vehicles were released onto public roads in the order determined by their qualifying lap (CalSol placed 13th out of 37). Our first driver, Nicole Schauser, started the car and headed out among the best solar cars in the world.

Then things went wrong. The flashing lights on our support vehicles broke and turned off. The power splitter in the chase vehicle stopped working. The wireless telemetry data sent from Impulse to the chase vehicle disappeared. Then the telemetry laptop in the chase vehicle failed leaving only 1/8th of the screen usable. Throughout all the chaos Nicole did an excellent job driving as we started to cover the three million meters from Darwin to Adelaide, one minute at a time.

Our first problem with Impulse was discovered around 11:00am on the first day. An improperly manufactured electrical connection was preventing the solar cells from charging the batteries. We lost a few hours of sun and 90 minutes of race time while the team quickly diagnosed the problem and created a working solution on the side of the road. From that point on Impulse drove like any vehicle should, covered hundreds of kilometers every day down the Stuart Highway.

The seven day journey challenged our resolve. We crossed vast expanses of red baked dirt, pushed through dust storms, drove through brush fires, witnessed lightning, and camped in rain. Sometimes we experienced all of those in the same afternoon. Camp was stationed wherever the end of the day happened to take us. We used the side of the road, rest stops, caravan parks, and an airstrip. The morning started before the sun came up and ended after it was dark. My family fed the team delicious home cooked food out of the RV, and we slept in tents. Each day was planned to start driving at exactly 8:00am and finish at exactly 5:00pm in the afternoon. Driver changes were made quickly to avoid delays and packing lunch meant that we only had to stop at predetermined race control points.

Midway through the race everyone was delayed 3 hours 52 minutes in Tennant Creek due to brush fires. The sixth day of racing was completely cloudy and prevented us from traveling much faster than 10 kph on an empty battery pack. That day the team cheered every time Impulse made it over another tiny hill. These delays, on top of our problems from the first day, forced us to trailer the solar car on several days in order to meet race checkpoints. The race is structured to only count the kilometers that your vehicle completes on solar power and our strategy team decided which parts of the race to travel under the sun and which parts to travel in the trailer.

The sun came out full and strong for the last day of racing. As we approached the final minutes of the challenge the radios were full of shouting, “Go faster! Faster!” At over 80 kph on the last home stretch of the race we took in the moment of glory. We may not have completed the entire 2998 km under solar power, but we placed 20th out of 37 teams in the final ranking. From a team whose attendance at the World Solar Challenge was uncertain at best, we are very proud of our solid 1809 km performance in our first trip to Australia.

In the middle of the Outback I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of unity we had with the race as a whole. We saw dozens of solar car teams every day on or off the road and we even shared camp sites along the way. I expected to leave Darwin and see everyone at the finish line in Adelaide. But, as we learned, the Stuart Highway is long and it forces everyone to travel the same route day after day. We regularly spoke on the radio with other teams to discuss safe convoy passing, and we always parted with a meaningful “good luck” to the neighboring team.

We are very happy with our first foray into WSC and know that if things had happened a little differently we could have finished the entire race on solar power, an accomplishment achieved by only seven teams this year. I am confident that CalSol members will do great things when they carry the drive and passion we have today. I challenge the future of CalSol to step up and make it happen.

by Chris Cartland, Team Manager for CalSol
Written on October 29, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia regarding the 2011 Veolia World Solar Challenge, a 3000 km race from Darwin, Northern Territory to Adelaide, South Australia on October 16-23, 2011.

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