North Carolina State University team sets solar speed record with normal car

A recent article in Technician online tells us about an interesting and successful solar car project at NC State University built by the SolarPack solar racing team. Not only did it set a record, but it was built on the body of a normal car (something most varsity teams would never consider).

It shows us how far technology has come and improved, leading to more and more normal cars both in competition and soon in production.

In July, SolarPack participated in the Formula Sun Grand Prix (an event we wrote about), where it set a new record with a time of three minutes and one second. The car did a total of 75 laps. But the vehicle’s speed isn’t the only thing that makes it unique among the varsity team’s solar cars.

“The heavier a car is, the more energy it needs to move,” said SolarPack Team Electrical Manager Harrison Stragh. “When you’re in a race that’s based more on distance than speed, to cover the most distance you need to have the lightest car. That’s why you see the lightest cars winning these solar races.”

The SolarPack car is a modified 2001 Volkswagen Golf GTI that weighs more than 2,800 pounds and is the most massive vehicle in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. This proved to be a major setback for the car’s performance at the event, which was dominated by hand-built cars made to be as light and aerodynamically elegant as possible. But most teams’ cars were also very impractical for any kind of everyday use, a problem SolarPack’s car didn’t share.

SolarPack designers purchased the original Volkswagen Golf body during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak for just $1,000. Ben Nichols, CTO of SolarPack and graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, said the team wanted to demonstrate that solar energy can be put into practice in current vehicle models while saving money in this difficult time.

“The few sponsors we had would do it [fund SolarPack] they needed to focus on their companies and make sure they survived the pandemic,” Nichols said Technician online. “Buying the Golf cut about $30,000 in body manufacturing costs.”

COVID has put a bunch of other obstacles in the team’s way. They didn’t have access to the university property at all, so work had to start in a team member’s driveway, which wasn’t ideal. They also had to limit the number of people working on the car to five at a time to comply with state COVID rules covering gatherings. On top of that, the truck hauling their car to the Kansas race broke down, one team member’s flight was canceled, and all of this resulted in them entering the race with an untested battery.

The team later discovered that two of the cells in the battery had come loose and the team stayed up all night so they could be fixed. Stragg noted that he felt this was the SolarPack’s most challenging obstacle during the race.

Despite these challenges and a frightening incident, which you can read about at Technician online (seriously, check out their article), the team still managed to pull off a successful run and break an important record.

Featured Image: Screenshot from the SolarPack website showing their vehicle.


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