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.
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):
- A project filled with experiences that you won’t find in your regular studies;
- Discovering a genuine engineering project and its various phases: concept, design, production,
- Connecting and collaborating with the largest companies in relevant industries;
- A close-knit group and a racing adventure never to be forgotten;
- 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.
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.