Life after solar car: een saaie boel?

A while ago, I posted about the fantastic documentary Driven by Challenges, conceived by Liselotte Kockelkoren-Graas (who was also interviewer, co-director, and executive producer) and produced by D2D Media. The six episodes of this documentary (in Dutch with English subtitles) can be accessed via this playlist. They describe the careers of six former members of Solar Team Eindhoven, which has won the World Solar Challenge Cruiser Class four times with its Stella family of solar cars.

I posted about, and recommended, the documentary as a way of encouraging engineering students to become part of solar car racing and to reap the benefits (once again, watch it here). But there is a downside to building the world’s best Cruiser-class solar car. In comparison, entry-level jobs for engineering graduates may be a little boring – what the Dutch call “een saaie boel.” Evita, in the famous musical of the same name, sings:

High flying, adored, what happens now, where do you go from here?
For someone on top of the world, the view is not exactly clear.
A shame you did it all at twenty-six.
There are no mysteries now,
Nothing can thrill you,
No-one fulfil you.
High flying, adored, I hope you come to terms with boredom.
So famous, so easily, so soon, is not the wisest thing to be.

This can be a genuine problem, but the documentary Driven by Challenges shows us three solutions, and that is what I want to talk about today.

The first solution is to leapfrog up the management ladder. This is an option that is primarily available to graduates who combine engineering talent with people skills. The two examples in the documentary are Wouter van Loon (Escalation Project Lead and Strategic Business Planner at ASML) and Liselotte Kockelkoren-Graas herself (Innovation Lead and Senior R&D Engineer at Vanderlande). It is no accident that both these talented engineers filled people-oriented slots on the solar car team (Wouter handled Sponsorship in 2013, and Liselotte was Account Manager in 2015). Leapfrogging up the management ladder can give you all the challenges you might possibly want.

A quite different solution is to go into Research & Development. An engineering company may not give the coolest projects to fresh graduates, but R&D often lets them do exciting stuff from day one. Two solar car alumni in the documentary (André Snoeck, who handled Finance on the 2013 team, and Patrick Deenen, who was Mech. Eng. System Architect on the 2015 team) went on to do doctorates (doing a doctorate is a lot like working on a solar car, except that it lasts longer, and can sometimes be solitary). There is also another category of R&D worth mentioning: military-related R&D is typically done in specialist government agencies. Such agencies offer fresh graduates a chance to build all kinds of interesting prototypes (and you get to say things like “I could tell you the technical details, but then I’d have to kill you”).

The third solution is to go it alone at a startup. So the world doesn’t fully recognise your talents? Join with like-minded people to start your own company. After all, being part of a world-class solar car team is the best possible practice for that. The documentary includes an interview with Arjo van der Ham, who is co-founder and CTO of Lightyear, a startup company building a commercial solar car.

A fourth solution, not covered in the documentary, is to switch career direction, and to start over in a completely different field. That is less common, but it does sometimes happen. After all, having helped build a solar car is excellent training for about a million different things, and engineering is a way of thinking that is helpful in a wide variety of situations.


2 thoughts on “Life after solar car: een saaie boel?

  1. Competitions for solar cars are not fully ecological activities. Solar cars do not consume fossil fuels, but all the cars and vans and trucks of the team that follows that solar car consume a lot of fuel derived from oil. I think that the next competitions for solar cars should take this into account. Just thinking about winning doesn’t matter how it should be considered a legacy of the past. We cannot say: “That solarcar traveled 3,000 km without consuming a drop of petrol” because from now on we should consider the total oil consumption of the team following that car in the race.

    • The World Solar Challenge and similar events are, in my view, fundamentally educational activities. In parallel with formal classroom study, these events help build the engineers that the human race needs to tackle some of our pressing challenges. A second goal is to demonstrate the viability of solar cars (although the company Lightyear may have taken that over).

      I see your point, but the rule change you suggest seems to me difficult to achieve. From the point of view of goal #1 it is not really necessary. From the point of view of goal #2, one might imagine a race with more mature solar cars and only a single support vehicle, but that is difficult to reconcile with goal #1.

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