Student Group Designs Cars of the Future

“Absolutely amazing,” responds Sasha Zborek, when asked about his experience with the Stanford Solar Car Project (SSCP) Team. He is justified in his enthusiasm: from competing in a cross-continental race in Australia to racing across North America, the SSCP has done it all. Founded in 1989, the Stanford Solar Car Project is a student-run, non-profit organization dedicated to creating environmentally sustainable technology and increasing the community’s awareness of clean energy vehicles.

In last year’s World Solar Challenge in Australia, the SSCP placed tenth overall, and fourth in the Silicon Class. It was a great comeback from their defeat in 2007, when their car flipped over and never finished the race.

Their impressive performance is even more significant when considering the fact that SSCP’s solar car had perhaps one of the smallest budgets of all the cars participating in the race. After two years of grueling preparation and brainstorming for the 2009 WSC Challenge, they developed innovative means to ensure success. Despite their efforts, even this year’s competition was far from smooth, with the team encountering severe shipping delays and minor mechanical mishaps before the competition.

So exactly how difficult is it to build a solar car? Each new Solar Car typically takes a team of eight highly committed members about two years to build. Because competitions occur every year, and cars take two years to build, the team often takes their newly built car to compete in the World Solar Challenge competition, and then improve it before the North American Solar Challenge.

In building a solar car, teams not only have to take into consideration the aerodynamics and electrical systems, but also build the motor, install the solar panels, and construct a specialized software program. Since the driver’s life depends on whether all of the car’s parts interact without hiccups, preparation and testing is crucial.

Unsurprisingly, being a SSCP team member requires a huge time commitment. Sasha Zborek, the former captain, recalls that he spent 40 to 50 hours a week working on the project. For him, Monday nights would be dedicated to SSCP meetings and Wednesday nights would be dedicated to the mechanical team meetings, where they would design the wheels and suspension. On Friday nights, he would meet with the electrical team to design the motor and the solar panels, and on Saturdays he would oversee the car’s test-drives. However, although the time commitment is a factor he cannot ignore, he believes being able to “sit down, draw things on a white board and turn it into something real” makes every hour worthwhile.

The team is made up of mostly undergraduate students, but accepts graduate students as well. During the school year, 10 to 12 members participate actively, but more come-and-go on a voluntary basis.

The SSCP’s newest car is named Apogee. Starting in 2008, SSCP began building Apogee in preparation for the 2009 Solar Car Challenge and the 2010 World Solar Car Challenge. According to Zborek, “All previous solar cars names have been space-related. Apogee’s predecessor’s was Solstice, and Solstice’s predecessor was Equinox. Apogee means the maximum point of elevation, the highest point of orbit. It seemed like a good name.” The name is adept for the car, considering its impressive performance so far.

Given all their successes, the team is now excited and determined to be even more successful in the 2010 North American Solar Car Challenge. “We already paid the entrance fee,” Zborek announces. He adds, “Our biggest rivals are MIT. We’re expecting second place but we’ll have to see what happens.” If the Stanford team’s car turns out to be as strong as their determination, we can surely predict amazing results for 2010.

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