Solar car races have gained in popularity over recent years, and now college teams are a familiar sight at many solar race car competitions. Designs will vary, and the process for competing can be difficult to complete, but the dedication of so many teams continues to inspire the world of solar car races.

Solar Race Cars

Solar race cars have been around since the 1970’s but their form and performances have changed many times since, and so has solar car racing. Solar car racing involves vehicles that run completely off of solar power and use solar arrays.

The first solar car race was the Tour de Sol which took place in 1985. Many individuals and universities participate in solar car races, and occasionally a larger corporation will participate as well.  

Universities typically have teams that are part of their engineering department and can consist of any number of students. These teams work together with faculty to learn, design, build and modify a solar vehicle specifically fitted to compete.

There are also a few high school solar car racing teams that exist and enter competitions for high school student teams. While these students are able to develop engineering and design skills through hands-on experience, they are also able to work with evolving technology.

Solar cars may include a battery that serves to store the power collected from their solar panels. Solar cars may also have an electric motor that is used for acceleration, and braking mechanisms specific to their design requirements.

Solar cars can be found in a variety of shapes, and with differently configured solar arrays for creating electricity. The shape of the solar car will dictate the amount of surface area available on the car and how much power will be generated.

How Is A Solar Race Car Different From Other Solar Cars?

Solar cars that are used for racing will have some design differences and may also employ a different set of technologic components. Solar race cars are designed with speed in mind and may not be able to cover varied terrain during different weather conditions like other solar cars.

Design

When designing a solar car for speed, lighter weight materials will be used to cut down on weight. Using only three wheels in the design is very common, and the solar race cars frequently have wing-like shapes to make room for more solar panels.

Since solar racing cars are frequently under rigid energy constraints, the body of solar cars must be lightweight and extra care must be taken to use systems that are more efficient.

For example, a small area in the center of the vehicle is raised and allows space for the head and shoulders of the pilot, but it is a small area with limited amenities. It is unlikely to find features like air conditioning, or comfortable seats in a solar race car.

Materials

In a solar car race, the weight of the vehicle will matter more as there is a limit on the amount of energy that can be used. Light and strong materials will be chosen and technology components will be considered based on their weight.

While it may be easier to create a non-racing version of a solar car, creating one with racing constraints can offer a great challenge to those interested in engineering. Easier systems may exist that are quicker to install, but their weight is enough to prevent the solar race car from being as efficient as possible.

Aluminum, various composites, and titanium are frequently chosen for the solar race car frame and other mechanical features. The proper metal will be chosen based on its weight, and other characteristics that make it best suited for the job at hand.

With different body shapes and chassis, suspension systems may or may not be used. Disc brakes are popular as they offer reliable performance, but hydraulic brakes are also used. Some parts of solar racing cars may be borrowed from other small vehicles such as motorcycles.

Solar racing has gained popularity in recent years, and now companies manufacture racing tires specifically designed for solar race cars. Steering components are also available and different systems may be developed to best compliment the design.

Steering design will be made as efficient, precise, and reliable as possible. This ensures the best possible performance from the solar race car but also maintains the safety of the driver on board.

Testing

The final design of a solar race car will only emerge after several attempts and many iterations of the original design with small tweaks. Custom parts, material availability, and funding can all impact the final design and features.

By testing the different systems that are part of solar race cars along the way, larger design changes can be made with less of an impact on the other systems. Computer-aided design programs are frequently used as they are a good resource for running test simulations for things like drag, and rolling mass.

Computer simulations are a common step for well-funded teams prior to building a solar racing car. However, many amateur solar race car creators are able to put together incredible machines without the use of simulated testing.

While testing it is important to have some engineering and mechanical skills so that small and strategic changes can be made. Diagnosing problems are also a common part of building a solar racing car and many builders gain skills and knowledge in this subject as they build their solar car.

How They Are Used

Solar racing cars will look different from the solar cars designed for city transportation. Solar panels are improving substantially over time, and as they become more efficient at creating energy, solar cars are able to change their design.

Having more efficient solar panels means that solar cars can have more features that are traditionally seen as luxuries. These amenities may already exist in modern gasoline powered cars, but each feature adds extra weight and complexity to a solar car design.

Some solar cars are being designed as replacements for traditional gasoline-powered cars, which includes all of the modern amenities that drivers have grown accustomed too. Solar racing cars are designed with speed and efficiency in mind and favor technology and aerodynamics.

Solar Powered Car Races around the World

There are several solar-powered car races around the world, some of which have a long and deep history. Teams from all over the world are encouraged to compete, and collegiate level participants are typically the most abundant.

Entering a solar-powered car race can take a year or more of planning, report submissions, design testing, and tweaks in order to fully comply with the regulations of the race. On top of that, solar race cars must also be ready for mixed terrain that simulates different driving conditions while also proving their efficiency.

United States

The American Solar Challenge is a solar-powered car race that covers 1500-2000 miles over the span of several days. Collegiate level teams from all over the world are encouraged to compete, and the track spans across the country.

Each year the route changes in an effort to give competing teams the chance to show how their solar race cars can perform in everyday driving conditions. Not only are these conditions challenging, but they test the reliability of all of the onboard systems that the solar cars need in order to perform at their best.

Entering this race is quite a commitment as teams must overcome several hurdles before the competition is ready to begin. The preparation process takes approximately one year, and participants must submit design reports on their solar cars which perfectly comply with each of the regulations set forth for competition that year.

This process can be particularly grueling for competitors, and extensive testing must also be performed before a design will be approved. Once on site, the solar cars are rigorously inspected to be sure that they match the plans that were previously submitted and are safe to compete.

Australia

Solar car races in Australia hit a new peak when they hosted the World Solar Challenge in 2017. The solar race began in Darwin and ended in Adelaide, covering 3000 kilometers. With 40 teams recorded as participants from all around the world, different classes of solar cars competed against one another.

With class categories such as Challenger, Adventurer, and Cruiser, the designs of the solar cars varied somewhat based on their intended purpose. The University of Michigan Solar Car Team came in second with their Challenger class solar car named Novum.

The event lasted 8 days, and during that time the solar cars were subjected to the terrain typically seen on Australian highways. With nine milestones marked along the way, competitors were treated to views from a number of Australian cities and tourists were able to follow the excitement as the solar cars made their journey.

Regulations released on the event website included specifics on the dimensions of the vehicle, the types of solar arrays to be used, wheels, safety measures, and space for the pilot. With several designs on display, each car must be inspected to ensure it is fully compliant.

Like many other solar car races, the World Solar Challenge saw many collegiate level participants who underwent an extensive process to get their solar race cars ready for competition. Extensive plans are typically submitted and various reports are also required to ensure the vehicles meet the strict regulations.

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