The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge: A Reflection By Chris Selwood AM
02 Sep 2020
"Over its 30 year history, the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge has grown in stature from a somewhat quirky enterprise populated by nerdy inventors to a serious engineering challenge that has attracted the attention of some of the world’s most prestigious institutions.
But what is it?
The proposition is simple enough: Build a solar powered car and drive it across Australia.
But is it sport or science? Engineering or research? Education or adventure? And what about art?
Certainly it is a little of all of these things. But to understand where it’s going, we need to understand where it has come from. Let’s take a look at the history of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge and the motivations for its existence.
Whether those motivations are economic or environmental, change is inevitable. Change and the way we think about things. And how we deal with disruptive change is invariably a key to the future.
It should be clear by now that we can’t carry on doing the same old things that we as a population came to understand in the early 1970s, with the worldwide oil crisis. We understood there were political reasons to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
In more recent times the motivation is the environmental imperative to operate in a carbon constrained world. But if we go back 50 years, we find that car racing was an early casualty of the 1970s fuel shortages. So, unable to participate in motor racing, Danish-born Australian adventurer Hans Tholstrup had the idea: Instead of seeing how fast we can go, let’s see how far we can go, and on how little energy.
In October 1987, twenty-three cars from seven countries embarked on the very first World Solar Challenge. After a decisive win by their entry Sunraycer, General Motors’ space age car became an icon of their corporate profile at over 240 major exhibitions over the ensuing years. The World Solar Challenge then became a test bed for every facet of vehicle design from aerodynamics to tyres, with participation in various forms from automobile giants like Ford, Honda, Toyota and Nissan.
By 1996, oil was flowing, the economy was booming, climate change was being denied and interest in the World Solar Challenge was waning.
So, what would be the future of the event? No longer a forum for the big manufacturers to brag about how green they were, it became a serious design competition to push the boundaries of electric vehicle efficiency.
Clearly, what it was not (as some thought it might be) was just another form of motor racing.
We redefined the competition as an intellectual exercise. Brain Sport. In many ways it was still a race. A race for the future.
To make it harder, in 2013 we established the Cruiser Class. Real cars for everyday people that, in many ways, may herald the future of personal mobility.
And to make it even more relevant, we are engaging with the CSIRO to highlight the importance of Smart Grid technology in the future of electric vehicle operations.
Because the future is not just about the cars we drive. Whether we like it or not, our electricity network operators are going to have to deal with disruptive technologies (if they are not already doing so).
So why do we do it? This Brain Sport.
Because it’s relevant. Because it stretches us. Because it’s hard. And the realisation that our event has all these ingredients is not lost around the world where we have helped others develop their own events suited to their own environmental conditions.
Neither is it lost on our sponsors or indeed by the industrialists around the world who understand that well-rounded individuals with multidisciplinary teamwork skills are essential to their business. Which is why our alumni can be found applying their talents in the world’s most innovative companies.
So, what’s next? I hope we will continue to reflect the dreams of visionary people.
Many of my generation dreamed of the freedom a set of wheels might bring. I wonder what wheels might carry the dreams of today’s children."
Chris Selwood AM
Bridgestone World Solar Challenge