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Chris pENTACOFF
The MIT Solar Electric Vehicle team’s solar car, Eleanor, is being inspected at one of the control stops during the world solar challenge in Australia.
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Meet Eleanor. Her sleek, reflective body spans the length of nearly 16 feet — encrusted with over 580 silicon solar cells and capable of generating an estimated power output of 1200 watts. Her streamlined curves and futuristic design make her an instant star of any roadway, whizzing past other cars at speeds of up to a potential 90 mph and boasting a drag coefficient of only 0.11.

To the unexpecting eye, her presence on the road during a test run often demands a second glance, perhaps even reminding onlookers of a UFO. But the banners decorating her sides proudly announce that she’s not from outer space. She’s the most recent creation of MIT’s student run Solar Electric Vehicle team (SEVT) — a fusion of novel design, meticulous construction, and some of the latest solar car technology.

Since her unveiling last February, Eleanor has seen the countryside of several states on her North American tour, demonstrated the team’s newest technology to her many sponsors on firsthand visits, and has been the center of attention during of dozens of club outreach events as the team’s tenth generation single-passenger solar car.

But her biggest accomplishment yet comes from her completion of the 2009 World Solar Challenge last October — the team’s primary race — where she finished the 3,021 kilometer trek from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia in only five days, placing second in the “Silicon Class” and fifth overall, out of 38 teams.

Eleanor averaged 73 kilometers per hour during the race, according to team member Michael P. Roberts ’11.

The “Tokai Challenger” from Tokai University in Tokyo, Japan, finished first overall but was placed in the “Challenge Class” and “Gallium Class” because of its use of the more expensive but more efficient solar cell array.

“When we crossed the finish line, we weren’t really sure of what to expect, since most of the team hadn’t done solar car before,” said one of the team’s current leader, Alejandro F. Arambula ’12.

“But the fact that we crossed an entire continent in five days on a car that we built ourselves, it’s not something that a lot of people can say.... It’s something we’ll keep with us for a long time,” he said.

Leading to the 2009 Race

When eleven SEVT team members and alumni, including Arambula, traveled to Australia to race Eleanor at the World Solar Challenge last October, it was the first time that the team had raced in the World Solar Challenge since 2005.

According to Arambula, the team normally designs, builds, and races each car on a two-year cycle but did not compete in the 2007 Challenge, primarily due to lack of funds and membership.

Eleanor’s predecessor in the 2005 race, Tesseract, was a gallium arsenide-paneled car which finished sixth overall in World Solar Challenge and also placed third in the North American Solar Challenge — a race that the current SEVT will not compete in. Instead, the team will spend more time on the design of the next car.

Despite this brief lull in activity, however, MIT’s solar car team was able to raise the roughly $300,000 necessary to construct Eleanor.

Raising funds is entirely member initiated. “All team members help organize funding,” said member Kelly Ran ’12.

Another feature that sets the car apart is its custom made power trackers ­— designed by Robert Pilawa ’06 — which monitors and regulates optimum power outputs and is better tailored to Eleanor than those available commercially.

The purpose of the power trackers is to “ensure that solar cells are putting out the most power at a certain given time” says team member George J. Hansel ’12.

Unlike with the group’s previous cars, Eleanor’s design featured an upright seating angle and a rack-and-pinion steering mechanism with a conventional steering wheel in order to comply with new regulations. Additionally, Eleanor includes fixed fairings (drag-resistant external structures) and cruise control for the first time in MIT SEVT history.

Racing Down Under

In stark contrast to the busy streets of Massachusetts Avenue, where curious onlookers point their cell phone cameras at the car during the occasional test run, Eleanor faced large stretches of open road and the scorching heat of the outback.

“The temperature in the car around noon was at 110°F, but the drivers all had a camel pack of water to sip throughout the day,” said Roberts, one of the team’s drivers.

For three of the five days of the race, MIT’s team led the roughly 20 cars in its class, but was passed by the University of New South Wales on the fourth day.

“It was really rough to be first [in our class] for four days, then be passed in last day, simply because of a slightly better car — knowing that we were doing almost our complete best” said Arambula.

But the team will now be “ready to come back in two years and be competitive with the top-tier teams,” he said.

To attend the race, held from October 24–31, members had to miss around two weeks of class, but expressed that the skills that they earned in exchange were well worth it. “Almost every team member has something to say about how the experience has gone beyond just the academics,” said Arambula.

“Every student that doesn’t do an extracurricular here is missing out on a hell of a lot,” he said.

Eleanor’s Namesake

Eleanor only recently returned from Australia via boat roughly two weeks ago, and team members say that they’re already beginning plans for the team’s next car for the 2011 Challenge.

In designing the next car, the team says that they will likely explore the use of higher quality but more expensive gallium arsenide solar cells as well as modified body shape and steering control.

Although the upcoming car currently remains officially unnamed, Roberts recalls that Eleanor’s name comes from the most elusive car in the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds” — a little-known fact to most of the public.

Hansel, however, points out that the name “Mahna Mahna,” a reference to Sesame Street song and a name he posed for the future car in an outreach event, is one of his favorite current contenders for the next car.

“Jokes have gone around, but we haven’t decided on anything yet,” says Arambula.