Dread Down Under


By Matt Nixon

They don't seem to be releasing the cars at the regulated intervals," shouted Maggie Hayes, the sprightly woman who would become our guide on the 1,800-mile race across some of the planet's roughest, most challenging terrain.

It was gibberish to me. "What?" This became a frequent question that I would throw back at Maggie.

The sleek, brightly colored vehicles drove under the banner and between the temporary barriers that marked the beginning of the race in the State Square of humid Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.

At the starting line for the 2011 World Solar Challenge, I was fumbling with a headless tripod (in what I imagined would be the perfect vantage point). Anxiously waiting for my partner, Marcin Szczepanski, the College of Engineering's Multimedia Content Producer, to emerge from the bramble of spectators. This bulky thing was useless without a camera or its photog.

The sleek, brightly colored vehicles drove under the banner and between the temporary barriers that marked the beginning of the race in the State Square of humid Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. It was Sunday, October 16th – the season of Spring Down Under.

"They're supposed to be spaced one minute apart at the start." Maggie was at a full sprint. "Keys! Let's go."

"I got them," I was juggling the tripod, two beverages, an iPhone, mobile WiFi (had to be ready to tweet at a moment's notice)...did I even have the damn keys? Oh, right, I was the driver for first leg; I had to have them.

Was there time for a quick tweet? After all, the race was officially underway. And what if I didn't update Michigan Engineering's Facebook status, would this thing even really be happening?

As the official embedded social media manager it was my responsibility to alert the—

"Get the truck." She waved me off. "Bring it over this way. I'll find Marcin."

I glanced at my watch/GPS. Maggie was right (as I would find out, she usually was). I realized the solar vehicles were heading out of the gate closer to 15 seconds apart.

The keys. Attached to my belt.

I downed my hot cappuccino (in Oz they know how to brew killer coffee drinks but they take their time), chased it with bottled water. We were heading into the Outback; I had to be hydrated and alert because things were already getting out of hand. Still confounded by the tripod. Glanced over my shoulder and there went the University of Michigan Solar Car Team's entry. It looked like a low flying UFO.

Quantum

I'd met the team's business director, Chris Hilger, at the Wilson Center back on the University of Michigan's North Campus eight months earlier, in February of 2011. It was snowing, dark and cold. Winter in Michigan.

When I was introduced to Hilger and Rachel Kramer, the race manager, they showed me the new car called "Quantum." It was a prototype in hideous disarray. It looked a lot like a giant toy model that could sit downstairs on the ping-pong table, lonely and gathering the dust of ambitious but forgotten intent.

There was much ado about the whole weight thing. Looking to shave off weight, Hilger was pleased to report that they'd taken apart Infinium, the storied predecessor to Quantum, and weighed each and every piece. This vehicle would be much lighter and therefore much more efficient. When you're dealing with a battery-powered car that draws its energy from the sun, strength-to-weight ratios are everything.

We talked about the team's major league sponsors like Roush and Ricardo. Racing legends along with giants like Ford, Chrysler and GM. These two students were buttoned-up; Rachel and Chris were swimming in deep water from the beginning. And it suited them.

Rachel Kramer is, I'm convinced, a set of twins, if not triplets, posing as one unique project executioner. Trump would love her. Hilger radiates cavalier confidence with inspiring grins. He persuasively looks titans of industry straight in the eyes and they respond by sharing the resources of funding, facility and wisdom.

However, it was Quantum's light weight that became one of the ironic little problems that would plague the team from before the starting line. It would give them pause during early testing in Oz when a road train, the heaviest commercial road-hauling vehicle in the world, nearly blew Quantum off the road.

It was their first encounter with the great white shark of the Stuart Highway. Quantum's lightweight design did not fare well.

On a mock race around Michigan, when they hit a bump outside of Traverse City, they cracked part of Quantum's carbon-fiber frame. According to computer modeling, it was a bump that the frame lay-up should have handled.

What they learned from those early misadventures will inform commercially durable, lightweight automotive design. Their mistakes will impact the future of automotive engineering in ways that will resonate with novel solutions to today's energy problems.

That's why this type of event is so important and why the participants are so passionate. You cannot escape one simple truth: A solar powered car is feasible. Not only is it valid, it's outgrown itself and the race. It makes a mockery of oil and illustrates what happens when teams of bright minds are given adequate funding.

Takeoff

The Quantum that was racing into the streets of Darwin was not even the same car I saw in pieces months earlier. It was a second car altogether – a secret weapon of sorts.

They ran the first Quantum around Michigan for the mock race, showcased it at events, tested it in the Outback a month before the World Solar Challenge, and used it for qualifying. But this car, making its way through the city, was what they were calling "spare parts."

It was the best of everything they had in one build. All of their hopes rested on it. It was in fact, Quantum 2.

By the time I'd tucked the tripod under my arm, Marcin emerged from the crowd. He had been shadowing Quantum since it began its roll to the starting line and beyond sight.

"Okay, I'm ready." He was drenched in sweat. Had he run a marathon? He chugged right past me toward the SUV. Marcin has endurance that should be studied and bottled for wholesale distribution.

The next few moments were the most exciting of the race. Subsequently, they were also a blur. I was driving our diesel-fueled pig of an SUV. Maggie navigated. Poking his cameras out the windows, probing for the shots that were escaping everyone else, Marcin careened back and forth in the rear seat.

I spotted the car that, the day before during time trials at the Hidden Valley Race Way, had taken the pole position. Its now notorious qualifying run was captured on video when it took a hairy turn on only two wheels. Then it seemed like a potential wild card in the race. Now, there it sat like a small, bright red, beached whale. "Is that the Twente team's car? Great Caesar's ghost!" Maggie confirmed.

Before setting foot in Australia, we speculated about who the main competition would be and we were right.

We saw signs of another team that had apparently taken a wrong turn. Their pilot would have to return to the start or risk disqualification. No diverging from the course would be tolerated. I was flooring it and we still weren't quite keeping pace with the rest of the media circus. There was a lot of action on the road. Once I knew we were on the Stuart Highway it was pretty much a straight shot for the next 1,800 miles. To catch up to the leaders we'd have to get out in front quickly. We needed momentum and slick moves.

The mayhem gave Marcin a chance to shoot a lot of the other entries in this insane race. Only seven of over 30 cars actually finished. Many teams wouldn't be making it much farther than this.

Something about it felt surreal, like an inversion of a Conrad novel. People were parked in campers alongside one of the world's most dangerous highways, a broad concrete river cutting into the heart of a vast sun-baked dessert. And they were just...observing.

Entire families were perched on RVs waving, holding up their babies, snapping photos, smiling… didn't these people understand that yes, an exciting race was underway, but that this (including the solar cars and their petrol-powered entourages) also entailed a mad dash of steel, glass and heavy plastics charging in a southerly, downhill direction?

The Dutch

Before setting foot in Australia, we speculated about who the main competition would be and we were right. In 2009, the Tokai team from Japan won 1st place. Nuon from the Netherlands took second and Michigan took third in the world.

There's something of a burgeoning clash between the Dutch and Michigan. Most mornings, before that day's leg of the race would begin, the Michigan team was treated to some of Nuon's library of über loud, jingoistic American rock, or even "Amerika" from Germany's Rammstein. It was half camaraderie and half psychological warfare. It's a friendly rivalry if ever there was one. But it's a rivalry nonetheless.

After getting out of the knot of the early field contenders we were looking for indications that we were getting close to the leaders. The first sign just happened to be the Nuon support truck. We needed to get past them.

We called it in on the CB and let them know we were going to overtake. This would become ritual, apparently something only our crew of three did with any regularity. It was good form. We had that going for us.

Passing the Dutch… this was a good sign.

We only had about 80 miles to the first control stop. Twice a day, by rule, drivers were rotated and the car charged for 30 minutes.

After all, sleep-deprived drivers are dangerous drivers. Watching the solar cars on the road, you know the pilots are doing a physically and mentally athletic task. In Australia, particularly on this stretch of road, falling asleep (or more likely losing focus) at the wheel is a major problem.

Further, checking for stress on the car is important; these are hand-made vehicles. Stress on the structure comes into play as much as energy drain or wind drag.

Once we passed the Dutch and their Nuna6 car we caught site of the Michigan squad. We punched it and made a couple of passes. Marcin fired away with an array of lenses and equipment. We charged past the Michigan caravan again. Marcin picked a spot up ahead. We parked and he piled out. Armed to the gills with well-selected equipment, he muttered a few things and took off on foot. He made for high ground.

Marcin shot Quantum coming at us. Shot the Dutch coming at us, Jumped back in the car. We would catch them again at the first control stop.

The Japanese

When we got to the first control stop, things were still fresh and weird. There was the fact that Michigan was slightly ahead of the Dutch and only about 10 minutes behind the Japanese. Fukushima's nuclear shadow loomed large and drove the purpose behind the team from Tokyo's Tokai University. Their Challenger car was quick from the takeoff.

Acceleration is a major hurdle for electric vehicles and the Japanese team seemed to have an answer to the lag problem. The Challenger kept finding seconds that turned into minutes. And they found a lot of them by getting out of the control stops faster than anyone else.

After leaving that control stop we noticed the trees were getting shorter and further apart. Our vessel was finally leaving the bush and rumbling into the Outback. The race was getting real and everyone was settling into the challenge.

About an hour after the second control stop of the day, Michigan set up camp just past the Dutch and Japanese teams – ahead in distance but still third in time. We felt further ahead, at least in one dimension.

It was as remote a spot as I'd been in my life. You could see stars that you had no idea existed. And spiders that looked like Boston blue crabs. It was beautiful and quiet and colorful and a little scary.

Sounds I'd never heard from birds that I didn't know existed and I wondered why they didn't care that it was night. They kept the student mechanics company. We never slept more than a couple of hours the rest of the race.

Wauchope and Brushfires

The second day of the World Solar Challenge 2011 was infamous. It started with Michigan watching the first and second competitors pass into the Outback. Quantum settled in behind them. It was a nice, clear day. Everyone felt good and the pack was having fun competing.

But they stopped us at Wauchope. The place is surreal. Somewhere in the center of nowhere. "Brushfires." Maggie shrugged as she trotted back.

I swore. "What?"

"Arsonists," she explained.

"What?"

"Who goes around burning this nothing?" I stopped puzzling about it immediately. Wasn't worth getting inside the head of a person that demented. That was it and I knew it. Besides, I had bigger fish to fry: This was tweetable material and we had a military-grade satellite up-link.

Time to get word out to the world. We would stay in Wauchope for the night.

We hadn't even made it to the day's first controlled stop, but if the authorities in Australia think something in the Outback is dangerous enough to shut down the only road in the area, I guarantee you it will kill you.

As soon as it was confirmed, there came a bit of good news. At the premature conclusion of the second day, Michigan was behind the Dutch by less than 10 minutes. The team was confident that they could handle the challenges of the coming day.

But the start of day three was confounding. Michigan took off toward the sedated, smoldering brushfire. The valiant driver was wearing only a surgeon's mask, in lieu of an in-cabin filter. When he was waved over to the shoulder, upon approaching the smoke, the white-masked pilot complied with the beckoning police officer. Maggie pulled over; Marcin was out and moving before our SUV was even parked.

I watched helplessly as the Dutch passed by us and kept right on going into the murk, straight down the Stuart Highway and into second place.

There was a conversation with the police officer. The team handled the whole thing with poise. Poised or not, they lost precious minutes and felt sucker-punched. Those were hard won minutes, time that they would not get back. While this was going down, the Japanese and Dutch teams were gaining ground.

The cop was eventually persuaded that sitting in the smoke alongside the Stuart Highway was more dangerous than moving forward, as Michigan had been told to do by race officials. The Michigan team was permitted to proceed.

Marcin, loaded down with gear and some nifty shots of Hilger smoke jumping, hopped back in the SUV. I was right behind him. Maggie, at the wheel, gritted her teeth. "That was ridiculous." I hadn't seen her angry yet. "Why would they stop just us?" It didn't seem right. In the fight for second place, just like that, the edge went to the Dutch.

The night was quiet, a little electric buzz in the air. Michigan and the Dutch team holed up at the Kulgera Roadhouse. Planning... It was a longshot – the Michigan team knew it was still possible, with an aggressive strategy to overtake the Japanese inspite of the fact that they were more than 30 minutes ahead.

Windowed Fairings

En route to Coober Pedy, a world-renowned opal-mining town, the first control stop of day four… it really hit the fan for Michigan. At first, I had no idea what I was seeing.

I imagine war must be a bit like this. You're cruising along, half asleep, half in conversation. You have your eyes on your caravan, out there in the shimmering distance as you traverse a dangerous, empty stretch of desert. There isn't much to see and you're beginning to miss home. Bored and not all that interested in the fact you're on the other side of the world from where you grew up and then WHAM!

The team was quick to get the car together and on the road again.

Of course we weren't in any mortal danger. We just came upon the Michigan caravan on the side of the road. It was a mental explosion. Was anyone hurt? How could this be happening? Why was Quantum on the side of the road?

The casual body language of Chris Hilger indicated that no one was injured. Good. Santosh Kumar, the team strategist, paced nervously. Not good.

Marcin got into position and started taking photos, shooting videos and capturing everything as it was happening. It was obvious that something key was missing from the side of Quantum, and without total technical understanding I knew what it was. It was the back-breaker.

By the time the semi arrived with a spare windowed fairing, a lot of time had been lost. Too much time. But Quantum couldn't continue the race unless it was intact.

The windowed fairings cover the two front wheels on the three-wheeled Quantum. When the wheel is turned sharply, for example, when a driver compensates for a mean crosswind while piloting a light car - the fairings are designed to open slightly to accommodate the wheel's turning radius.

The fairings are part of the reason that the car is one of the most aerodynamic designs on the planet. Unfortunately, they also proved to be a liability. Quantum is challenged when confronted with a strong crosswind. Add to that a thundering road train coming head-on, and that creates enough force to rip the fairing clean off.

The team was quick to get the car together and on the road again. The chase vehicle carried spare windowed fairings now - and wouldn't have to wait for a semi, even if the improbable happened again. Yet, it wouldn't be long before it did happen again. The second time a fairing was ripped off, it was torn free by two massive oncoming road trains in a row. Their wash was added to the same nasty crosswinds. Winds that buffeted our heavy SUV. I don't know how the drivers did it. Sure, youth has the benefit of bravery, but these guys had ice-packed nerves. Even without the road trains, the crosswinds were murder. But the drivers weren't daunted.

Incident at Glendambo

From this team I saw but a single expression of emotion that you could characterize as negative. They were already resigned to the fate of numbers, another likely third place win, and already holding themselves responsible for their perceived failures.

There was no coaching to be done. This team has no coach. It really doesn't need one. No speech would have changed anything. Bo Schembechler himself could not have inspired them to win, because it came down to math. Immutable, physical, numbers…

I spoke with the Head Strategist Santosh Kumar and asked what he thought the chances were. He had all the answers, knew the numbers.

"We'll get third." He said this with some authority.

"Again? And the Dutch get second?" I didn't care for that idea.

I like the Nuon team a lot. The Dutch were nothing but fun and generous. But you want to win, even if you race a beloved sibling.

"Not even a chance?" I had to ask. Maybe he had another secret weapon, like the second Quantum, hidden up his sleeve.

"Not unless something happens," he said. We both looked at the red, South Australian dirt. Providence had just seen Michigan through a rough day. No way Santosh, I or any other Wolverine wanted something unfortunate to happen to another team. It struck me that he actually seemed relaxed for the first time. I imagine true engineers find comfort when it's the laws of the universe that have bested them.

I saw the heart.

The heart was also there when two engineering students took one of the rescued windowed fairings and taped it to the trailer wall with duct tape. One took up a Sharpie and wrote: "Do not use window fairings! Ever!"

Another joined in and they quietly took out their frustration on their own creation because it had failed them. That is the closest thing to negative emotions I saw from this team. That's as destructive as they got.

And what they wrote was a note to the future. They wanted it to be clear that they weren't giving up. They just had to let go of this idea of winning the 2011 World Solar Challenge. They were pissed. They wanted better for themselves and for future team members.

Their third place win wasn't yet cemented but they were already planning the next design. Inevitably, the results played out the way Santosh had predicted. Michigan became the highest-placing American team in the global event by taking third. A final result just like 2009: the Japanese team took first and the Dutch took second.

But there's always 2013.