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Dominant traits

Why are these students from Ann Arbor some of the best solar racers in the world? Celebrating the team's 25th anniversary while riding along for an unbelievable victory in Abu Dhabi. | Long Read
EnlargeSolar car drives on desert highway.
IMAGE:  Students and alumni of the University of Michigan Solar Car Team participated in the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge in January 2015. Photo: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

The fine sand swirls with the slightest breeze, and floats across the ceaseless dunes. Rolling desert meets the horizon in every direction. Only 50 miles from the Saudi border, a single road cuts through the endless panorama. Suddenly, like a mirage, the Michigan solar car, Quantum, and its support vehicles appear on the lonely road.


It’s been three days and hundreds of miles of intensely close racing—and now it’s the final leg of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge. U-M has passed the leading car and is out in front, but to stand a chance of winning they must make up precious time. At this point, the slightest mistake is the difference between victory and defeat.

From his vantage point atop a dune, a toothy grin appears from under the safari-style hat of Chuck Hutchins (BSE ME ’57). “It doesn’t get much better than this,” he laughs. The spry 81-year-old quickly heads toward his car, negotiating the dunes with the agility of a younger man. Nothing is going to keep him from watching Michigan cross the finish line, like he’s done so many times before.

Hutchins has accompanied the team on all but two races throughout its 25-year legacy. Not only is he a mentor and supporter, he’s its biggest fan. His wife called him crazy when he flew from their home in Florida to watch the team cross the finish line in the 1990 GM Sunrayce. “It’s no crazier than our friends flying to Pasadena for a football game,” he replied.


No other student group has done anything with the continuity and success of the solar car team.Chuck Hutchins (BSE ME ’57)

Widely regarded as one of the top teams in the world, Michigan has won the North American Solar Challenge eight times—and is currently the five-time defending champion. They’ve taken third in the World Solar Challenge five times.

Alumni and current members of the University of Michigan Solar Car Team competed in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge in January 2015. The race was made up of some of the best teams from all over the world and ran its course through city streets and across the Emirati desert. U-M's participation in the race was different from a normal race in that it committed to racing with an alumni team a mere couple of months before the competition. The team quickly bonded, however, and proved to be a strong competitor for the local favorite, the Petroleum Institute solar car team.

Solar car alumni have been an important part of the team’s legacy. They have helped disseminate an institutional knowledge of solar racing throughout the generations. They act as mentors, offer advice and participate in design reviews. But never before had a team of alumni and current students raced together. The Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge changed that. The timing of the race, the availability of the crew and a casual suggestion led to the serendipitous opportunity. Seven alumni from various U-M teams joined three current teammates to form an unprecedented crew.

The multigenerational team arrived with moderate expectations. “We came here to just have fun and run an older car, exhibition style—and then Michigan Solar Car set in,” explains team manager Jeff Ferman (BSE CS ’08). Now racing for first place, Michigan’s genetic solar racing savvy would be put to the test like never before.

But to understand any inherited trait, one must look to the past.

EnlargeSchematic sketches of the first solar car.
IMAGE:  Schematic sketches of the first solar car. Photo: Michigan Solar Car Team

Reliability Became the Foundation of the Program


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.

EnlargeSunrunner's driver, Paula Finnegan, being congratulated at the finish line of the 1990 GM sunrayce.
IMAGE:  Sunrunner's driver, Paula Finnegan, being congratulated at the finish line of the 1990 GM sunrayce. Photo: Michigan Solar Car Team

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.'Susan Fancy (BSE ME '91)

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.

EnlargeQuantum drives down a desert highway.
IMAGE:  Students and alumni of the University of Michigan Solar Car Team participated in the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge in January 2015. Photo: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

No Other U-M Car Has Raced in Four Races


Quantum, however, matched it. With two American championships, a third place finish at Worlds, and the race in Abu Dhabi, “no other U-M car has raced in four races,” explains economics major and driver Noah Kaczor. “The team that raced the previous car, Infinium, disassembled it after Worlds and weighed every single component. In the end, they cut 200 pounds off of Quantum.” That crew also slaved over aerodynamics. With the help of an industry sponsor, “we ended up with what we think is the most aerodynamic solar car running right now,” says Kaczor. It is a testament to the team’s cumulative achievements.

Aerodynamic innovation has been a secret weapon for Michigan solar cars from the beginning. As the aerodynamic lead for the 1990 team, Bill Kaliardos spent countless hours with Sunrunner in the U-M and General Motors wind tunnels—relentlessly testing design iterations. At the time, Sunrunner set the record in GM’s wind tunnel for lowest drag coefficient. Another example of aerodynamic supremacy was in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge.

“On the second day of the race, Michigan was in the lead, but the location of our stopping position was under intense cloud cover—all the other teams were in sunshine,” recalls Hutchins. “We didn’t get any solar charging that evening, and the next morning we sat and watched the other cars go by. When we got to Winnipeg, we were 29 minutes behind Minnesota. The next day, there was a 30-knot crosswind that blew Minnesota all over the road and forced them to slow down.” Michigan’s more aerodynamic car, Momentum, slipped through the wind, gained 44 minutes and ended up winning the 2,500-mile race by less than 15 minutes.

It has always been a goal of U-M solar car teams to find creative ways to get a competitive advantage. “Every team has a scout car, but our scout car used to mark directions on the road,” says Ferman. “It was incredibly convenient and helped us not miss turns. We were also doing advanced weather monitoring before other teams. We had a UAV and 15-foot diameter weather balloons to help us track entire air columns.”

Less technical but nonetheless strategic examples include deploying a road kill team to remove any unforeseen speed bumps. If the race crew could find a place to end the day next to a reflective body of water, they would position the solar array so that reflected light would provide a double dose of solar energy to the battery.

  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner. Photos: Michigan Solar Car Team
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
  • Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.
    Building and testing the first solar car, Sunrunner.

More extreme instances of creativity have actually led to official rule changes, known by some as “Michigan rules.” For example, the Momentum team took advantage of the desolate nature of the Stuart Highway in Australia. As with most roads, it is crowned to help with drainage. Driving on the correct (southbound) side of the road slightly biases an eastward tilt of the solar panels. By passing a car at a snail’s pace, the team would end up driving on the wrong side of the road for much of the afternoons. In doing so, they were able to optimize a slightly advantageous angle for solar charging. The race committee is now very clear about following road rules.

Another more technical example occurred between the 2005 and 2007 World races. The rules had been changed to limit a car’s solar cells to six square meters. Michigan’s interpretation of that rule recognized that although solar cell area was regulated, solar collection was not. This led to the implementation of a new tracking parabolic concentrator system, which allowed the team to maintain eight square meters of collection area. Several official rules concerning concentrators and clarifying restriction on solar panel collection were subsequently put in place.

Many rules are designed for safety, but simply put, solar car racing is dangerous. “In 1995, we had a flat tire and hit the gravel on the shoulder,” recalls Hutchins. “The car skidded, rotated and went across oncoming traffic and crashed on the other side of the highway.” In 2012, the team spun out in the rain headed into Minneapolis. They’ve crashed twice in Australia.

“The 2001 car crashed violently and it was miraculous that no one got hurt,” remembers 1999 crewmember Joe Lambert (BSE AeroE ’04). “We had been experimenting with four wheel steering. We thought it was a great asset but it didn’t give the driver much ability to recover from a slide. On a perfectly beautiful day in The Middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma, we were sailing along at 60 mph. A big pothole surprised the driver. She swerved to avoid it and went into an uncontrollable slide. The car went across an oncoming lane, through a barbed wire fence and launched about 30 feet down into the woods. It went from a perfect day to a worse case scenario in less than a second. She had a few bruises on her shins, but was otherwise fine.”

EnlargeDamage sustained from a pothole in The Middle of Nowhere, OK.
IMAGE:  Damage sustained from a pothole in The Middle of Nowhere, OK.

Less dangerous, but equally tense moments happen to every race crew. How a team handles unforeseen mechanical, electrical and weather situations can make the difference between first and second. It’s those adrenaline-pumping situations that make the taste of victory sweeter, or defeat more rancid. “I don’t remember a scarier moment than when the chain slipped off the motor 45 minutes before the finish line in 1990,” recalls Jones. “There was a moment of, ‘Aahhh!,’ But we had a procedure – got out and fixed it.”

From team to team, the shared experiences and emotions endure. “Solar car people are the kind of people who, if something is easy, they’re not having fun,” concludes Kaczor. “They love putting themselves through adverse situations.” Long hours, and sleepless nights are par for the course. “When I work on something, I’m all in,” says Jones. “When you have a similar mindset and work ethic, you just gravitate toward those people.”

EnlargeCatching a morning charge on day three of the World Solar Challenge. Tuesday, October 18, 2011.
IMAGE:  Catching a morning charge on day three of the World Solar Challenge. Tuesday, October 18, 2011. Photo by Marcin Szczepanski, Multimedia Content Producer/College of Engineering, U-M

It Took Time for the Program to Rebound


Rigorous preparation and practiced procedures come from learning hard lessons. The importance of sharing those lessons from team to team was evident early on. The 1990 GM Sunrayce was thought of as a one-off event, and the team hadn’t anticipated the need to transfer knowledge to a successive group of students. When the decision was made to build another car, a team subcommittee was put in charge of the transition and the second U-M solar car, Maize & Blue, defended the U.S. championship. But then there was a break in the cycle.

“When we were again changing over to a new group of leaders, we didn’t set up any real transition,” says early team member Furqan Nazeeri (BSE AeroE ’94). “As a result, much of the knowledge transfer didn’t happen. Poor succession planning was one of the primary mistakes we made between the ’93 and ’95 teams.” In 1995, the U-M car, Solar Vision, crashed and failed to finish the Sunrayce. “At the end of the day, engineering really just boils down to people,” says Nazeeri. “That’s the real lesson of the solar car team.”

It took time for the program to rebound.

EnlargeSolar car parked in the rain.
IMAGE:  The 1999 Solar Car team and MaizeBlaze's performance in North Carolina. Photo: Michigan Solar Car Team

“MaizeBlaze (in 1999) was a massive defeat,” says Lambert. “I remember standing in a rain storm in North Carolina spitting nails mad. We had failed to properly test the car in the rain before the race.” MaizeBlaze ended up finishing seventeenth in that year’s Sunrayce. “That’s when I decided to come back and help reinvent the program and the team.” Lambert came back determined to unite the team around a common vision and unwavering commitment to success. “We didn’t want to have a one-hit wonder—we wanted to restore a legacy,” says Lambert. “That is more work than building a car or winning a race, but a lot more fulfilling. That’s probably where some of that intensity came through.” That intensity characterized his no-nonsense reputation and actually landed him in the hospital for exhaustion on one occasion.

“I guess it worked,” confesses Lambert. “It’s funny, when you win a race, everything you did was great. When you lose, everything you did was wrong.” Lambert helped lead the 2001 M-Pulse team to victory in the American Solar Challenge. Michigan has won that event five times since.

EnlargeLeda Daehler and Joe Lambert discuss race strategy.
IMAGE:  Leda Daehler and Joe Lambert discuss race strategy. Photo: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

Lambert’s reputation followed him to Abu Dhabi, where he joined the team as crew chief. “I’d never met Joe, but everybody’s heard of Joe—he’s a legend,” says current race strategist Leda Daehler. “I thought he would be really intimidating and crazy, but he’s been extremely helpful to me over the past week. I’m coming into a leadership role on the team, and I value his perspective on what it was like in the past—what worked and what didn’t. Everyday I feel like there is a new thing that I learn from these guys—a lesson of the day.”

“I hadn’t raced in over a decade and it was amazing to see the Abu Dhabi team work together,” smiles Lambert. “A team that has never raced together is reading off the same sheet of music. Everyone knows the procedures and radio calls—even the way the car is moved and handled. It is cool to see that a lot of the stuff the 2001 team had done is still adding value and being built on.”

EnlargeQuantum finishes a stage at the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge.
IMAGE:  Quantum finishes a stage at the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge. Photo: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

Synchronicity on Display


The team in Abu Dhabi is in full race mode, and its synchronicity is on display as Quantum charges ahead, battling for time. The chase vehicle radios calculated speed changes and maneuvers to the driver. “Blue, you are clear to merge left…Merge left.” At this point, every second counts. “Quantum was driving better than ever on the last day,” says Kaczor. “Joe had made some suspension adjustments, so the car was much more stable.” Negotiating the roundabouts that punctuate the small towns separating Quantum from the finish line had become routine. As the U-M caravan approached the next circle, routine went out the window. Loud squealing from skidding tires was followed by stunned silence.

The local police had been helping control traffic throughout the race, specifically at roundabouts. As Michigan’s lead vehicle began to exit this particular roundabout, the police followed, incidentally letting in oncoming vehicles. Quantum and the chase vehicle did not realize what was happening, and suddenly a heaving water truck was barreling into their path. Quantum slammed on the brakes, with the chase car skidding quickly toward the fragile solar array. By the grace of good driving, and some luck, both cars stopped within feet of disaster. After a collective breath, Lambert is back on the radio. “You’re good. Hold position, Blue. Okay Blue, you are clear to pass.”

On the final day, Quantum zips across the finish line ahead of all the other cars. Still not knowing if they have made up enough time to win, the team celebrates. “This is way more than we ever expected,” says Ferman. “Watching the Michigan spirit pull through and people pull closer and closer together has showcased exactly what we’ve got out of this program—and exactly what we’ve built this program to do.”

That night, they celebrate some more and share solar car stories. The next morning, it is official. Quantum won the three-day race by roughly two and a half minutes. A team of people who had never raced together beat 14 teams from around the world. It was the first U-M Solar Car victory on a global stage. “It speaks to the depth and the integrity of the program that we’ve built,” says Lambert. “You can step back in, and the heartbeat is still the same. The idea is still the same.”

Twenty-five years since Sunrunner, close to 3,000 Michigan engineers can call themselves solar car alumni. At the Abu Dhabi awards ceremony, several of them hoist Chuck Hutchins onto their shoulders. His smile is wider than his calling card Block M bowtie. “I think the alumni have come through strong. I hope this has influenced the students with us and impacts the next car because we have got to do something outstanding. I mean really outstanding. The other teams are not going to stand still.”

IMAGE:  The Michigan Solar Car Team crosses the finish line, poses for winner photo and celebrates at the award ceremony. Photo: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing
Solar car drives on desert highway.
Schematic sketches of the first solar car.
Sunrunner's driver, Paula Finnegan, being congratulated at the finish line of the 1990 GM sunrayce.
Quantum drives down a desert highway.
Damage sustained from a pothole in The Middle of Nowhere, OK.
Catching a morning charge on day three of the World Solar Challenge. Tuesday, October 18, 2011.
Solar car parked in the rain.
Leda Daehler and Joe Lambert discuss race strategy.
Quantum finishes a stage at the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge.
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