Episode 116: Solar Vehicle Project races to Australia

The Solar Vehicle Project will be participating in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, a 3,000 kilometer race across Australia next fall. Reporter Kaylie Sirovy went to the SVP garage to learn about the efforts the all-student team put in to compete.


by Kaylie Sirovy

KAYLIE SIROVY: Hey everybody, this is Kaylie Sirovy from the Minnesota Daily and you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast dedicated to the University of Minnesota.

Shepherd Laboratories, located on East Bank, is one of the many buildings on campus, but inside contains something unique — Car 15 — a vehicle fueled by the sun instead of gasoline, built by University of Minnesota students.

AMBER ZIERDEN: So we are a student group that is entirely self-funded, that designs, builds, and then races solar electric vehicles. It’s a really great opportunity to get hands-on experience with engineering as well as business skills.

SIROVY: That was Amber Zierden, the director of engineering and co-president at the Solar Vehicle Project. She oversees the engineering side of the team, which is gearing up for the upcoming Bridgestone World Solar Challenge all the way in Australia. Clubs and high schools from all over the world are set to compete.

ZIERDEN: The Bridgestone World [Solar] Challenge is one of the largest and most prestigious solar racing events in the world. It’s really where we put our engineering skills to the test and where we’re able to see, um, like the highest levels of innovation and really compete on the world stage.

SIROVY: The club has competed in prior races and in Australia as recently as 2019 but has never successfully finished the Australian race. According to Zierden, in 2019, the solar vehicle did not finish entirely on its own, needing to be pulled by a trailer for some portion of the race. Lucas Nelson is the new member coordinator and the leader of the photovoltaic array team, which is in charge of putting the solar panels onto the car.

LUCAS NELSON: As far as the outcome, I expect us to finish the race, which might not sound like a super big deal, but it is. Finishing such a long race, like 3,000 kilometers in the harshest conditions is really difficult, and very few teams actually do complete the race completely.

SIROVY: 3,000 kilometers is a little less than the distance from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, a 29-hour nonstop drive. The race is set to take place Oct. 22 to 29 in the Australian Outback from the north side of the country all the way down to the south coast. The Solar Power Vehicle team plans to have a race crew of around 23 people.

NELSON: We have a really solid team. We have a really like reliable team. If anything goes wrong, we will be able to fix it. I can’t say we’re going to get first, because there are other teams that do this to such a crazy degree. But I am confident to say, we’ll finish the race and we’ll be like one of the better competitors in the entire group.

SIROVY: So, how does the Car 15 work? Zierden says that the car does not run purely off of energy from the sun. It’s more of a team effort from a combination of things.

ZIERDEN: Yeah, so the car uses solar energy from the sun, um, to power a battery pack, and the battery pack then drives our motors, powers things like our lights and anything else that might require energy.
SIROVY: Matt Rajala, the team’s safety manager and one of the firmware developers, explains further.

MATT RAJALA: So our car is fully electric, so no, no gas in this car, no engine.

SIROVY: No backup generator?

RAJALA: So it’s yeah, uh, fully electric car. Um, we do have solar panels on top, which allow us to, um, supplement the car’s energy while we’re driving. And then we can also charge from just a standard electrical vehicle charging port.
ZIERDEN: We’ve been designing this car, Car 15, uh, for about three years now. We started the design process in 2020, um, with the intent of having its first race originally actually be last summer. Um, but after racing our 14th car, Freya, in the American Solar Challenge in 2021, we felt that we really didn’t show everyone what Freya’s full potential was, so we decided to put the, um, racing of the car that we’re currently working on on hold to race Freya once more, so this will be G1’s first race.

SIROVY: The American Solar Challenge is a similar race to the Bridgestone World. Last year the solar vehicle project won the race, which was from Missouri to Idaho, around 1,400 miles. A big accomplishment, but the team won’t stop there.

RAJALA: It’s just like something that’s so outrageous, saying that you raced a solar car across the Australian Outback. I think it’s an objectively hard thing to do. Like what we say around here is reliability wins. So if we can, we’re planning to get test driving with our newest car very soon. We can iron out a lot of those bugs. I think we have a good shot.

SIROVY: Zane Johnson is the other co-president and the director of operations. Anything on the team that isn’t engineering falls under his jurisdiction.

ZANE JOHNSON: Classes, like, classes it’s a lot of looking at a whiteboard, pen and paper. Whereas here it’s like, you’re actually using it and you’re actually like kind of applying what you’ve learned in classes, but also vice versa. Sometimes you’re applying what you learned in solar vehicle to do better in your classes as well.

SIROVY: Applying class material is a big part of the club itself. Students have been given the information in their classes, but that knowledge is put to the test in the garage. To be able to watch what students have built with their own hands is really incredible to see. Nelson, being a team leader himself, explains what he has gained from being a part of the club.

NELSON: Yeah, I think focusing on the skills part of it, it’s just been insane how much I’ve learned that I never would have learned or could have learned in a classroom. There’s so much just hands on work and like just getting down to it, not having to sit in a lecture kind of stuff that is really hard to learn in school. This solar vehicle project has been a great job to just like do it in a real situation. Well, also being under the safety net of like, hey, we’re still a University club. We’re still getting money from here and here; it’s not like you have to make your own business startup.

10 SIROVY: The solar vehicle project includes a wide range of majors that aren’t solely STEM either. Johnson is a communications major, and leads a team from graphic design to finance majors.

JOHNSON: Um, a lot of the like race work we have to do, you don’t really have to know too much about the engineering side of the car. There’s things we need operations members for too, like there’s, um, like a media car for taking pictures, things like that, but a lot of the work can be done without knowing the intricacies of the car, although the engineers are also extremely important on race crew.
It’s been a learning process, but I’d say, I mean, anyone can join. I mean, we’ll definitely set people up with whatever they’re comfortable with.
SIROVY: Zierden, Nelson, Rajala, and Johnson will all be heading to Australia at the end of September with their team to begin preparations for the race.

JOHNSON: I’m super excited to be there, but I think we’re gonna do great as well. We’ve had a lot of obstacles, we’ve overcome this, um, build cycle and I think the car’s gonna turn out wonderfully and I think we’re gonna do great.
SIROVY: You can learn more about the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge at worldsolarchallenge.org and the Solar Vehicle Project on their website, umnsvp.org.

This episode was written by Kaylie Sirovy and produced by Abbey Machtig and Alberto Gomez. As always, we really appreciate you guys tuning in. Feel free to email us with comments or questions at [email protected]. I’m Kaylie Sirovy, and this is In the Know.