Solar vehicle races from Texas to Calgary

Paul Blizzard, Rob Clarke and Tai Heng, all Sci ’05, show off Ultraviolet.
Paul Blizzard, Rob Clarke and Tai Heng, all Sci ’05, show off Ultraviolet.
Photo by Alok Ghosh

Just when the Queen’s solar vehicle team seemed to be in luck, fate—in the form of a pothole—reared its head.

Their two-seater solar car, Ultraviolet, snapped off a wheel on rough pavement near Omaha, Neb., in last week’s North American Solar Challenge.

But within five hours of the accident, the wheel was reattached and the car was back on the road, said Chris Marriage, the team’s mechanical manager.

“That was kind of our little triumph,” he said. “I think the most amazing thing is that we keep on moving and keep on persevering in the face of all these difficulties.”

The 3,900 kilometre stage race began in Austin, Tex. on July 17. After travelling through central North America via Winnipeg, Man., the competitors said at press time they hope to cross the finish line in Calgary, Alta. tomorrow.

The car missed a checkpoint due to the repair delay and is no longer competitive in the race standings, Marriage said. After further repairs in Winnipeg, the car was expected to complete the final stage.

Speed has been a secondary concern for the team in recent years, said Paul Blizzard, the team’s project manager. For the past three years, it’s focused on design that takes solar vehicle technology one step closer to the mainstream: Ultraviolet and its predecessor, Gemini, are two-seater cars with room for a driver and a passenger sitting side by side.

“It’s a unique thing we’ve decided to pursue,” Blizzard said. “If you have a car that’s closer to what normal people drive, you can use that to educate the public a lot more,” he said.

Queen’s two-seater cars have also prevailed in speed races in the past: Gemini was the first place two-seater car at the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 2003, Marriage said.

Although Ultraviolet’s array is re-used from Gemini, it has a new suspension system, built mainly of mountain bike components, Blizzard said. It also has four-wheel steering, which he said improves its aerodynamic profile.

The car has a 3,400-cell solar array to power its electric motor on sunny days, and a new battery pack to store surplus power to keep the car travelling at a constant speed during cloudy periods.

It also contains a low-power camera and LCD display to act as a rearview mirror.

Safety has been a renewed concern for the team after a University of Toronto solar car driver was killed in an accident last summer, Blizzard said.

Andrew Frow, 21, was piloting U of T’s solar vehicle near Waterloo as part of an alternative energy tour when he spun out of control into the path of an oncoming minivan.

“[Frow’s death] hit the team pretty hard,” Blizzard said. “Since then we’ve done a lot of things to review the safety practices of team.”

The review was carried out by an independent panel appointed by Tom Harris, dean of Applied Science.

“They were very positive in what they said,” Blizzard said. “They produced a set of guidelines and responsibilities.”

Ontario universities with solar vehicle teams also came together under the provincial Ministry of Transportation to develop a set of best practices regarding driver training and vehicle testing and safety. Those guidelines will be used to license university solar cars.

In-car safety is stringent, Blizzard said. The car has a titanium roll cage and was tested for two weeks before being taken on the road.

The driver and passenger wear helmets and five-point seatbelts, and have an emergency exit system that will allow them to escape from the vehicle in 10 seconds without outside help.

Marriage said the most satisfying aspect of the race was the disbelief on the faces of safety inspectors when the team presented a road-worthy car mere hours after losing a wheel to the pothole.

“No matter what happens to us, we’ve been able to keep going and stay in the race,” he said.

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