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MIT Solar Car Team Gears Up for Contest in Australia

By Yi Zhou

Drivers in Australia will witness a curious sight next weekend as a troop of miniature UFOs-on-wheels invade Stuart Highway.

These bizarre vehicles, solar cars designed and built from scratch by students, will blaze through 1,800 miles of rainforests, woodlands, and desert at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. And they won’t even have to stop for gas.

Twenty-five teams from 11 different countries will race off at 8 a.m. next Sunday, Sept. 25 in the Eighth Bi-Annual World Solar Challenge (WSC).

MIT’s Solar Electric Vehicle Team will send “Tesseract,” its 375-pound solar car, into its second race on Sunday. Fifty pounds lighter and five miles-per-hour faster than its predecessor that placed third in 2003, Tesseract has a completely different chassis design and better aerodynamics.

Regardless of the outcome of the race, “it’s definitely a thrilling and unique experience,” said Benjamin W. Glass ’07, one of four drivers for the race. “It’s not that often that you get to design, build, and synthesize a project, and see it through from the shop to half a world away.”

Keep your eyes open for roadkill

The course begins in Darwin, Australia and takes the teams across the country to finish in Adelaide. The solar cars are allowed to drive from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it will be up to the team members riding in lead and chase cars to help the driver navigate.

Since the course is not closed, drivers must also look out for roadkill and other vehicles. There are seven checkpoints along the way where the teams can switch drivers.

The drivers of Tesseract this year will be Glass, Alex C. MeVay ’02, Chris Pentacoff ’06 and Adam R. Vaccaro ’07.

Driving the car is “really cramped and not really comfortable, but it’s still exciting,” said Team Manager Peter K. Augenbergs ’06. “Your head’s pressed against the windshield, and you’re pretty low to the ground.”

This year marks the end of Augenbergs’ three-year leadership for the team. “I’m definitely sad to leave the team,” Augensberg said.

With a third place win at the North American Solar Challenge this summer, the team is hoping to finish in the top five and beat its 2003 time of 32 hours and 54 minutes, Augenbergs said. Teams to watch for are the University of Michigan (first in the NASC this year), Nuon Solar Team (first in the 2003 WSC) and Aurora Vehicle Association (second in the 2003 WSC).

Car arrives with some damage

Tesseract has already made its 12,000-mile journey to Australia, along with four of the 20 members of the SEVT.

The trailer appears to have crashed into a shipping container during transit, which jarred the car loose from its moorings, putting a one-foot crack in the left side of the car, said team member James M. Harvey ’05. There are also three cracks on the top of the car, he said.

The team should be able to replace the damaged cells and repair the cracks in time for inspections on Thursday, Sept. 22, Harvey said. Inspections check that teams have followed rules such as maximum car dimensions, minimum eye height and battery weight.

Another issue is transporting the car’s lithium ion battery, which is classified as a hazardous material and therefore could not be shipped with the car. The battery, to be used on days with inclement weather, was redesigned to be 20 percent more efficient than the old model. It should arrive early next week; if it does not, the team will have to borrow one from another team or buy a much heavier, lead acid battery.

Once the competition is over, the team will begin an entirely new design of a solar car. “The younger team members are really motivated and will build a really fast, kickass car for next year,” Augenbergs said.