Solar racing teams: the US and Dutch models

Stanford at the finish of the World Solar Challenge in 2015

Everybody knows that I’m a big solar racing fan. Today I wanted to talk about solar car team models, comparing what I call the “US model” (although most other countries also use it) with what I call the “Dutch model” (also used by the Belgian team). In the “US model,” students work part-time on a solar car team, and new members are added each year. As an example of this, I will look at the Stanford Solar Car Project, and specifically at one team member: Rachel Abril, who is forever famous for her May 2014 TEDx talk.

Rachel Abril did a 4-year Bachelor degree in Mechanical Engineering (the blue blocks in the chart below show Stanford’s academic years) followed by a Masters degree. The hashed region on the chart shows her extensive involvement with the Stanford Solar Car Project, first as a junior Mechanical Team and Aerodynamics Team member, and later as Suspension Lead and Aerodynamics Lead. She did not, I believe, attend the 2013 World Solar Challenge, but she did attend the 2015 and 2017 races (Stanford was improving during this period, but so were the other top-twelve teams!).

Rachel Abril’s story highlights one great advantage of the “US model,” namely that long-serving team members develop enormous experience in the design, construction, and racing of solar cars. They can take the lessons of one race, and apply them to the next one (and Rachel’s TEDx talk mentions some lessons that Stanford learned).

There are a number of disadvantages to the “US model,” however. New recruits often have limited knowledge of relevant physics (especially in the US, where high school graduates are educationally about a year behind their European or Australian counterparts). What work can new recruits be given that is both interesting to them and useful to the team? How can they be properly integrated into the team, and feel that they are genuinely part of the group? How can the team stop new recruits from feeling “cheesed-off” and dropping out? Answering these questions well is the key to success for US teams. One of the answers lies in running internal training courses for new recruits (there is also the IEF Solar Car Conference), but teams do not always include “Education Lead” or “New Member Coordinator” as one of the key team roles.

Another disadvantage of the “US model” is that the mix of people with varying lengths of experience creates a power structure. It can be difficult for a new recruit to disagree with someone that has been on the team for many years (even if, objectively, the new recruit is right). This can be a trap.

A final difficulty with the “US model” lies in balancing solar car construction, academic study, and personal life. Conventional wisdom is that you can hope for at most two out of three. Privately, team alumni sometimes suggest that one out of three might be more realistic. I don’t know what support mechanisms might help with this.

Solar Team Twente at the finish of the World Solar Challenge in 2019

In contrast, in the “Dutch model,” a smaller group of people gives up a little over a year of their life to work full-time on a solar car. This is quite a sacrifice. The Belgian team’s recruitment page explains the return on investment for the year like this (my translation):

  1. A project filled with experiences that you won’t find in your regular studies;
  2. Discovering a genuine engineering project and its various phases: concept, design, production,
    and test;
  3. Connecting and collaborating with the largest companies in relevant industries;
  4. A close-knit group and a racing adventure never to be forgotten;
  5. The experience of a lifetime and so much more!

Essentially, the year on the solar car team functions as an unpaid internship (speaking as someone who has helped arrange engineering internships in the past, I can’t think of an internship where you would learn more). One positive feature of industry internships is normally industry networking; this is also worked into the Dutch/Belgian solar car experience (as #3 on that list indicates). Of course, the need to set up those industry connections is one more reason to have a really professional sponsorship team.

As an example of the “Dutch model,” I will focus specifically on the 2018–19 “edition” of Solar Team Twente. Behind this team sits a part-time organisation (mostly of alumni) which handles recruitment and provides technical advice. This organisation began recruiting in February 2018, and a new team was announced on 9 June 2018. All these people were complete solar car novices, of course. The new team began work at the start of the 2018–19 academic year (with the aerodynamic and management subteams starting a little earlier). In the chart below, coloured blocks show academic years, and the hashed region shows the typical duration of full-time team involvement:

One of the first activities of the novice Twente team was to race the previous car, Red Shift, at the European Solar Challenge (iESC) on 21–23 September 2018. Team alumni raced the even older Red One, so that this was not only a training activity for the novice team, but an opportunity for knowledge transfer from alumni. Building on their iESC experience, the novice team then began designing and building their new car, RED E. The new car was revealed on 21 June 2019. After a test race on 17–18 August, the car was shipped to Australia on 30 August (a tragic crash due to wind gusts put RED E out of the race, but it was in the lead when that happened).

Engineering education in the Netherlands is traditionally a 5-year Ingenieur degree. Because of EU regulations, this is nowadays packaged as a 3-year Bachelor degree plus a 2-year Masters, but local students generally take the full package (because of the superior Dutch high school system, the 3-year Bachelor degree reaches at least the same standard as the 4-year US equivalent). As a result, the novice Twente team would have had substantially more formal education under their belts than new solar car recruits in the US. Dutch engineering schools also benefit from a close connection to industry, which drives a practical focus. The Eindhoven University of Technology, for example, is traditionally a feeder school for Philips, DAF Trucks, and other engineering companies in the Eindhoven area.

Of course, not every university teaches every skill needed for solar car design and construction. Dutch engineering schools typically teach agile project management, for example, but this does not seem to be the case in Belgium. The Belgian team therefore arranged industry training on the subject from their sponsor Delaware Consulting. Dutch teams also often benefit from industry-based “team building” activities (this video shows such an activity for Top Dutch). Practice races (including the European Solar Challenge) compensate for the fact that team members have never attended the World Solar Challenge before.

Because of team-building, educational initiatives, and good knowledge management, the “Dutch model” consistently produces top solar cars (Vattenfall/Delft has won the World Solar Challenge repeatedly, the Belgians won in 2019, Twente was on the podium in 2013 and 2015, Top Dutch came 4th in their first race, and Eindhoven has won the Cruiser Class every time). While the “Dutch model” relies partly on specific features of engineering education in the Netherlands and Belgium, I think there are several Dutch/Belgian practices that teams in other countries can learn from.

Nuon (now Vattenfall) at the finish of the World Solar Challenge in 2017

I should finish with a note on Vattenfall (Delft) Solar Team, which runs a variation of the “Dutch model.” Vattenfall (Delft) alternates what I call “big build” teams with “small build” teams. The “big build” teams design and construct new cars for the World Solar Challenge, while the “small build” teams modify existing cars for other events. For example, Nuna9 was a “big build” for the 2017 World Solar Challenge, while Nuna9S was a “small build” modification of the same car for the 2018 South African race (it included a clever radar system). Likewise, Nuna Phoenix was the same car modified again for the 2020 American Solar Challenge (that event was sadly cancelled, but Nuna Phoenix did set a world record). As part of providing a return on investment for the “small build” teams, Vattenfall (Delft) is careful to give these modified cars their own identity.

Solar Buggy aftermovie!

Credit (click image to zoom)

Hochschule Bochum is famous for their Cruiser-class solar vehicles. But they also have a solar buggy team   ). In 2019, they attempted a world record for crossing the Simpson Desert. Things did not go entirely according to plan, thanks to unusually high temperatures and strong winds, but they certainly produced a fantastic, innovative vehicle.

A few days ago, they released a spectacular 100-minute aftermovie of their world record attempt (see the 3-minute teaser and the full aftermovie). Well worth a look!

Fairy tale retellings

Little Red Riding Hood, as depicted by Gustave Doré (1883)

A few years ago, I blogged about fairy tales. “About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952, and Richard Dawkins had done exactly that.

Fairy tales are stories that have stood the test of time, and that means they have power. That power can be harnessed to teach science to children, but I don’t want to talk about that today; I want to talk about fairy tale retellings, which have become popular again in recent years.

It seems that Einstein did not say “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales” – but fairy tales do develop the imagination and speak to the human heart. And retellings keep fairy tales fresh.

Fairy tales are generally classified as fantasy, and most retold fairy tales fall within that genre too. Among my favourites are the dream-like novels of Patricia A. McKillip, including In the Forests of Serre (2003), which incorporates Slavic tales of Baba Yaga and the Firebird. In fact, pretty much everything that Patricia A. McKillip has written is superb.

“This Mortal Mountain” (1967), a novelette by Roger_Zelazny, collected in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth (1971) and This Mortal Mountain (2009)

Fairy tales can be retold as science fiction too. After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In “This Mortal Mountain” (1967), Roger Zelazny mashes together Sleeping Beauty (or “Doornroosje” as I first learned to call it) with Dante’s Purgatorio, in a story of mountain-climbing on a distant planet: “‘A forty-mile-high mountain,’ I finally said, ‘is not a mountain. It is a world all by itself, which some dumb deity forgot to throw into orbit.’ … I looked back at the gray and lavender slopes and followed them upward once more again, until all color drained away, until the silhouette was black and jagged and the top still nowhere in sight, until my eyes stung and burned behind their protective glasses; and I saw clouds bumping up against that invincible outline, like icebergs in the sky, and I heard the howling of the retreating winds which had essayed to measure its grandeur with swiftness and, of course, had failed.”

The spell described in this novelette is purely technological, but yet the story reduces me to tears every time I read it: “The planes of her pale, high cheeks, wide forehead, small chin corresponded in an unsettling fashion with certain simple theorems which comprise the geometry of my heart.”

The Lunar Chronicles, which I have not read, are a series of young adult science fiction fairy tale retellings, so the science fiction spin still exists.

Many fairy tales were originally intended to be scary. The terror of walking through a wolf-infested forest armed with, at most, a knife for protection is something that is difficult to imagine today, when Canis lupus is so much less common in the wild than it used to be. Deliberately swimming in shark-infested waters is perhaps the closest modern equivalent. Added to the wolves, bears, trolls, and giants, fairy tales also frequently have supernatural threats. In Faerie Tale (1988), Raymond E. Feist retells some Irish mythology as the straight horror it was perhaps once meant to be.

Fairy tales can also be retold with great success as Westerns. As with science fiction retellings, the frontier elements of danger and of the unknown help to set the scene. A particularly good example is The Mountain of the Wolf (2016), in which Elisabeth Grace Foley retells Little Red Riding Hood (or “Roodkapje” as I first learned to call it), but with a believable motivation for Red Riding Hood’s presence in the danger zone (I grew up with a Dutch children’s game that acted out the story; Red Riding Hood’s motivation in the original tale always struck me as confused).

Finally, fairy tales can be twisted. The outcome may be altered; the hero may become the villain; the beautiful dragon may be rescued from a ravening princess. This can become very dark, bordering on horror, or it may be light comic fantasy. And amusing recent example of the latter is The Reluctant Godfather (2017), a retelling of Cinderella by Allison Tebo in which the fairy godmother is (a) male and (b) totally uninterested in helping Cinderella out. In the movie world, Hoodwinked! is a well-known example of the twisted fairy tale in its comic form.

So there you have it. How do you take your fairy tales: black, or with cream and sugar?

The Santa Fe Trail #4

NPS map of the Santa Fe Trail in 1871 (click to zoom; more maps here)

The American Solar Challenge is on again in 2021, and includes a road race along the Santa Fe Trail on 4–7 August, from Independence, MO to Santa Fe, NM (exact route still to be decided).

To get myself in the mood, I’ve been reading Land of Enchantment, the memoirs of Marion Sloan Russell, who travelled the Santa Fe Trail multiple times. After marrying, she was an “army wife” for some time, before setting up a trading post beside the Trail. In 1871, she moved to a ranch in the mountains west of Trinidad, CO, where her husband was murdered during the Colfax County War. Towards the end of her life she visited many important sites along the Trail. They were already falling into ruin:

At Fort Union I found crumbling walls and tottering chimneys. Here and there a tottering adobe wall where once a mighty howitzer had stood. Great rooms stood roofless, their whitewashed walls open to the sky. Wild gourd vines grew inside the officers’ quarters. Rabbits scurried before my questing feet. The little guard house alone stood intact, mute witness of the punishment inflicted there. The Stars and Stripes was gone. Among a heap of rubble I found the ruins of the little chapel where I had stood—a demure, little bride in a velvet cape—and heard a preacher say, ‘That which God hath joined together let no man put asunder.’

Marion Sloan Russell died in 1936 (aged 92) after being struck by a car in Trinidad, CO. She is buried in Stonewall Cemetery.

Fort Union in 2006 (credit: Scott; click to zoom)

Other posts in this series: Santa Fe Trail #1, Santa Fe Trail #2, Santa Fe Trail #3, Santa Fe Trail #4.

The Santa Fe Trail #3

NPS map of the Santa Fe Trail in late 1866 (click to zoom; more maps here)

The American Solar Challenge is on again in 2021, and includes a road race along the Santa Fe Trail on 4–7 August, from Independence, MO to Santa Fe, NM (exact route still to be decided).

To get myself in the mood, I’ve been reading Land of Enchantment, the memoirs of Marion Sloan Russell, who travelled the Santa Fe Trail multiple times. After marrying, she was an “army wife” for some time, before setting up a trading post beside the (somewhat shorter in 1866) Santa Fe Trail at Tecolote, NM (about 15 km south of Las Vegas, NM):

We had five living rooms behind the store. They were cool and pleasant. The thick stone walls resisted both heat and cold. The windows were long and narrow running from ceiling to floor. I draped them with a gay silken print. The floor I had covered with Navajo rugs … Often I have heard old-timers laughing about the heat and the dust of the desert. I have heard them say jokingly that Hell would seem cool after living in Santa Fé. I had heard them say that the burning sands of the desert had sucked old-timers so dry that they could not pray. I had laughed with them …

Hopefully solar cars in the American Solar Challenge do not find the temperatures quite so hellish. The chart below shows average maximum July temperatures (early August temperatures are on average only about 0.5°C cooler, and may indeed be warmer, which means that temperatures inside the vehicles will be very hot):

Click to zoom; map produced using climate data from

Other posts in this series: Santa Fe Trail #1, Santa Fe Trail #2, Santa Fe Trail #3, Santa Fe Trail #4.

The Santa Fe Trail #2

NPS map of the Santa Fe Trail “Mountain Route” (click to zoom; more maps here)

The American Solar Challenge is on again in 2021, and includes a road race along the Santa Fe Trail on 4–7 August, from Independence, MO to Santa Fe, NM (exact route still to be decided).

To get myself in the mood, I’ve been reading Land of Enchantment, the memoirs of Marion Sloan Russell, who travelled the Santa Fe Trail multiple times. Her third trip was in 1860, at the age of 15, travelling from Fort Leavenworth along the “Mountain Route” or “Upper Crossing.” This route avoided Indian raids along the Cimarron Cut-Off. The Mountain Route crosses the 7,840 ft (2,390 m) Raton Pass:

Breaking camp while it was still early, our cavalcade began the steep and tortuous ascent of the Raton Pass. Today we glide easily over hairpin curves that in 1860 meant broken axles and crippled horses. The trail was a faint wheel mark winding in and out over fallen trees and huge boulders.

If the American Solar Challenge follows the Mountain Route, solar cars will hopefully have an easier time on the modern road. The “big climb” at the 2018 American Solar Challenge (following the Oregon Trail) was 902 m in 35 km (2.6%). Starting from Trinidad, CO, the Raton Pass has a similar climb of 558 m in 22 km (2.5%), with a maximum grade of 6% on the steepest sections.

Raton Pass in October 2009 (credit: Chris Light; click to zoom)

Other posts in this series: Santa Fe Trail #1, Santa Fe Trail #2, Santa Fe Trail #3, Santa Fe Trail #4.

The Santa Fe Trail #1

Map of the Santa Fe Trail (credit: NPS; click to zoom)

The American Solar Challenge is on again in 2021, and includes a road race along the Santa Fe Trail on 4–7 August, from Independence, MO to Santa Fe, NM (exact route still to be decided).

To get myself in the mood, I’m reading a second-hand copy of Land of Enchantment, the memoirs of Marion Sloan Russell, who first travelled the Santa Fe Trail in 1852 as a young girl of seven (following the southern route, the “Cimarron Cut-Off”) under the leadership of François Xavier Aubry:

Each night there were two great circles of wagons. Captain Aubry’s train encamped a half mile beyond the government’s. Inside those great circles the mules were turned after grazing, or ropes were stretched between the wagons and thus a circular corral made. Inside the corral were the cooking fires, one for each wagon. After the evening meal we would gather around the little fires. The men would tell stories of the strange new land before us, tales of gold and of Indians. The women would sit with their long skirts drawn up over a sleeping child on their laps. Overhead brooded the night sky, the little camp fires flickered, and behind us loomed the dark hulks of the covered wagons. … It was strange about the prairies at dawn, they were all sepia and silver; at noon they were like molten metal, and in the evening they flared into unbelievable beauty—long streamers of red and gold were flung out across them. The sky had an unearthly radiance. Sunset on the prairie! It was haunting, unearthly and lovely.

Not everything was quite so lovely; a theft in Santa Fe forced Marion’s widowed mother to abandon a further trip to California. Instead, she ran a boarding house: first in nearby Albuquerque, and later in Santa Fe itself. Let’s hope things go more smoothly for the solar cars of 2021.

Other posts in this series: Santa Fe Trail #1, Santa Fe Trail #2, Santa Fe Trail #3, Santa Fe Trail #4.

The American Solar Challenge rides again

The American Solar Challenge is on again in July/August 2021. I am maintaining an illustrated teams list, as I usually do. You can also check out the official ASC social media at        (click on the icons).

Left: credit / Right: credit (click images to zoom)

Board game rules

I would like talk about board games again – about game rules specifically. I downloaded some rulebooks and counted words: see the chart above. It can be seen that, in general, games for older players have longer rulebooks.

There are some exceptions, though. For example, Saint Petersburg and 7 Wonders both have very long rulebooks (for 10+ games). This means that new players need advice during the game, and in the case of 7 Wonders are often steered away from the more complex strategies at first. For Dominion, where there is a choice of “action cards” each game, one generally starts with an easier set if a novice is playing. For games like Pandemic, Power Grid, or Forbidden Island, an experienced player will take on the responsibility for the “machinery” that is common to all players.

Conversely, Taj Mahal is an example of a game that is a lot more difficult than the size of the rulebook would suggest. But even simple games can be enjoyable for adults: I would quite happily play Sushi Go! or Kingdomino if offered the chance (in part because the artwork is so much fun). Ticket to Ride is, of course, famous as a “gateway game” for introducing people to modern board games.

As a side issue, many people disapprove of the financial morality Monopoly teaches. More modern games will generally (a) not make money the object of the game and (2) not refer to “dollars.” For example, 7 Wonders refers to “coins,” Dominion has “treasure” cards (which may be “copper,” “silver,” or “gold”), Puerto Rico refers to “doubloons,” Saint Petersburg has “rubles,” and Power Grid refers to the unit of currency as an “elektro.”

I also looked at other keywords (listed below in decreasing frequency). The words “card,” “draw”, “board,” “tile,” “move,” “domino,” “dice,” and “buy” indicate major game mechanisms. For Forbidden Island, Monopoly, Pandemic, Puerto Rico, and Sushi Go! (among others), the text of the rules highlights the “theme” of the game. For example, Forbidden Island has a mechanism similar to Pandemic, but a theme involving a collaborative search for treasure on an island that is gradually sinking beneath the waves (hence the importance of “flood,” “island,” and “water”). Sushi Go! is inspired by Japanese sushi restaurants (hence the importance of “nigiri” and “wasabi”).

  • 7 Wonders: CARD, city, build, age, point, victory, coin
  • Carcassonne: TILE, score, meeple, place, city, point, road
  • Chess (basic rules): MOVE, square, king, piece, pawn, white, black
  • Citadels: district, CARD, character, gold, turn, city, gain
  • Dominion: CARD, action, discard, pile, deck, turn, phase
  • Forbidden Island: CARD, treasure, TILE, flood, island, discard, water
  • Kingdomino: DOMINO, king, kingdom, point, place, turn, line
  • Love Letter: CARD, round, hand, deck, choose, turn, discard
  • Monopoly: property, bank, DICE, house, mortgage, CARD, BUY
  • Pandemic: CARD, city, infect, disease, cube, discard, cure
  • Power Grid: plant, power, city, resource, step, phase, market
  • Puerto Rico: build, goods, colonist, ship, place, occupy, CARD
  • Saint Petersburg: CARD, phase, score, ruble, market, worker, exchange
  • Sushi Go!: CARD, score, point, nigiri, hand, round, wasabi
  • Taj Mahal: CARD, token, visit, place, score, province, point
  • Ticket to Ride: CARD, route, ticket, train, destination, score, DRAW
  • Tigris & Euphrates: TILE, leader, place, kingdom, temple, BOARD, color

World Solar Challenge: Technical Innovation

Having discussed the “David Fewchuk Spirit of the Event” Award in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, I should say something about the CSIRO Technical Innovation Award as well. After all, technical innovation in sustainable transport is what the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge is really about. I should also note that, in the four races 2013–2019, Punch Powertrain (now Agoria) Solar Team have won the award twice.

2013 – Punch Powertrain (now Agoria) Solar Team

The Belgian car Indupol One finished sixth in 2013. It won the CSIRO Technical Innovation Award for its 3D-printed battery pack, which facilitated cooling of the 429 cells inside (I cannot find a photograph of the pack itself).

2015 – Solar Team Twente

Solar Team Twente won the award in 2015 for their SABINE (Solar Array Balancing Interface Not Expected), an improved MPPT system which handled shadows well (see here for a longer description in Dutch). SABINE helped Twente achieve second place.

Car photo: Anthony Dekker; Inset photo of SABINE: Patrick Ooms

2017 – Punch Powertrain (now Agoria) Solar Team

Punch Powertrain (now Agoria) won the award again in 2017 for their Geneva drive system to activate four-wheel steering. This allowed them to yaw the car during crosswinds, thereby gaining forward momentum by “sailing.” Blogger MostDece posted an illustrated explanation of the design at the time. Ironically, the regulations for 2021 have been altered to rule out such a design in future.

2019 – Kogakuin University Solar Team

Kogakuin finished fifth in 2019, in spite of crashing twice due to strong winds (see their dramatic after-race video here). They won the CSIRO Technical Innovation Award for their hydropneumatic suspension, which allowed height adjustment of the vehicle (see it in action here).

Also in 2019, Top Dutch Solar Racing won the inaugural Excellence in Engineering Award, for their beautifully constructed car (which came fourth):