Force in the USA
15 Aug 2019
When it comes to technology, science and innovation,Tesla and Google are at the top of the food chain. They’re also two names counted amongst the alumni of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
Tesla co-founder and Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel and Google Co-founder Larry Page are both BWSC former team members of two of this year’s contingent of teams from the United States of America (Stanford Solar Car Project and University of Michigan Solar Car Team respectively).
Not forgetting, hundreds of University of Minnesota’s Solar Vehicle Project former team members work in major and small businesses around the world; Google, Microsoft, Ford and Cirrus Aircraft just to name a few.
These are only some of the many examples of BWSC alumni that have gone on to become integral parts of the global technology and science revolution, and examples that demonstrate the force of the United States when it comes to solar car racing.
The legacies of the US teams are amongst the strongest of all teams past and present. The University of Michigan, University of Minnesota and Stanford University’s BWSC teams were all founded 30 years ago. Michigan and Stanford both competed in the 1990 Sunrayce – an approximately 2,800 route from Florida to Michigan. The top finishers would win a trip to Australia to compete in the 1990 World Solar Challenge.
While they compete against each other, the US teams can agree on some things; that they are all students pushing for technological advancement, with a passion for learning. If there’s something else they all have in common, it’s the importance of their alumni.
“Throughout our design cycle we have design reviews with alumni where they provide feedback on our designs”, University of Michigan Solar Car Team’s Andrew Dickinson tell us.
“Our team is extremely grateful for our alumni that still help us. In most part it’s participation in our design reviews, and being there when we have questions”, University of Minnesota Vehicle Project’s Erick Sipila agrees.
The importance rings true for the Standford Solar Car Project, too, as Sarah Spaugh can confirm.
“Our relationships with our alumni are some of our most important and productive external relationships. Before any manufacture, testing, or racing, we invite a panel of alumni engineers to review any functionally critical designs as part of an internal design review, where we receive feedback and advice on our work and tips on how we might further optimize the design. Our alumni also drop into the shop from time to time just to visit, check out our current progress, and offer tales from their time racing across the Outback”
From what they’ve said about the BWSC, the passion of the alumni for their former teams is clear.
In a documentary on the BWSC by the Stanford Solar Car Project, Straubel credits his time with the BWSC team in the origin of Tesla.
"I think it matters more than most classes you can take," he said.
“I mean, it’s one of things that even today at Tesla we look at resumes and we consider higher than GPAs, and perhaps even higher than what classes they decided here and there.”
“Most of my involvement with the solar car team was toward the end of my stay at Stanford. I had many friends that were part of that team throughout my time there and I recruited most of the people from the team, and we started Tesla. It was a key thing at the beginning of Tesla.”
Which of the world’s next technology powerhouses will see its origins in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, we wonder…
Like other countries participating in the BWSC, multiple teams with the same nationality can have vastly different preparation styles and tactics, often owing to the contrasting climates of where they live. Stanford’s home state of California rarely experiences snow, while Minnesota is the fourth coldest state in the country.
“It’s rough building solar cars in Minnesota because it’s so cold and snowy for half of the year. We find it difficult for many of the tasks we need to do to build the car.” Erick explains.
While the Stanford team don’t feel that California offers a significant advantage, Sarah does admit that “the weather is ideal for test driving at all times of the year.”
While they may not get the same amount of sunny days in the year, Minnesota and Michigan both have close ties to the automotive industry. With the US home to some of the world’s biggest manufacturers, this puts the Americans in good stead.
“The big advantages to being in Minnesota are that we are really close with 3M, Cirrus Aircraft, Delta composites, and many more sponsors that are vital to the construction of our solar car” said Erick.
There’s no doubt that this year’s crop of American competitors, like the previous, will go onto become the future generation of leaders in engineering, computer science, automotive, marketing, and other fields. The positive environments fostered at the teams’ respective Universities have a proven history of encouraging not only excellence, but more importantly passion for the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
“I think our college environment definitely contributes to our team culture and success - we as students are always pushing each other to be better. The challenges of our academics complement the solar car project in making us more resilient engineers, and our university is great about providing us an excellent workspace plus lots of access to advice and resources, which are invaluable to our success as a team” said Sarah.
Going on from their time in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, the University of Michigan’s team have “former team members that are working in the aerospace, automotive, software engineering, and financial industries, as well as in marketing and sales”.
“Our biggest role is showing future engineers that utilizing renewable energy is possible. By taking a car that we designed and built ourselves and racing it in another country on solely the power of the sun is an idea that is really powerful and inspirational”, Andrew said.
Aside from their passion towards the BWSC, the passion for action on climate change from the collective of US teams is clear.
“As we all know the climate crisis is real, and we all need to take action to prevent earth’s temperatures from getting too high,” Erick explains.
“We hope to be a symbol to inspire people to think creatively and be passionate about saving our planet. This involves more renewable energy like solar and wind but also ways to reduce the amount of energy we use. For example, our car powers itself off solar energy but it wouldn’t be practical without our custom-built motors that are extremely efficient.
As a team we hope to inspire people to see the creative solutions and the many applications that solar energy can be used for” he said.
Sentiments that we’re sure will fill any reader with confidence, and hope.
You can follow along with each team's journey here:
The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge runs from October 13 - 20 2019, starting in Darwin and finishing in Adelaide, South Australia.