ASC 11: Leadership

Nuon Solar Team celebrates their 2017 WSC win (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Ernest Hemingway famously said that “war is fought by human beings.” It’s the same with solar cars – they are built and raced by human beings. Or, as Solar Team Twente likes to say, they are “powered by human energy.

There are many aspects to this human side of solar car racing. I’ve written before about how little things like team clothing contribute to team cohesion. A diversity of skills is important if a team is to succeed. During the race, nutrition is one of the things necessary to keep people working at top efficiency. But today, I want to talk about team leadership.

Engineering leadership is critically important, although surprisingly little is written about it. Tracy Kidder produced a fantastic, almost ethnographic, description of real-world engineering in his 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine, but even that book has the actual leadership happening mostly in the background.

A century earlier, Leo Tolstoy opened his novel Anna Karenina with the words “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (“Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему”). That is true also for solar car teams. Many things have to be done right if a team is to succeed, but doing one thing badly is enough to stop a team in its tracks.

A team leader must, first of all, motivate team members to do their best – it is no accident that all the solar car team leaders I’ve met have been really nice people. A team leader must make sure that the overall problem of building, racing, and finding sponsorship for a solar car is broken down into manageable pieces, and that the right person is in charge of each piece – this is the essence of engineering.

A solar-car team leader must also have – and promote – a clear vision of the car that the team is going to build. It is possible to have a world-class suspension, a world-class body, world-class solar cells, and world-class everything else, and still fail, because the components were designed under different assumptions, and don’t actually fit together to make a world-class car.

A team leader must keep an eye on the critical path as well. Building a solar car for a race is one of the most challenging kinds of engineering project – one where the delivery date is fixed in stone. What project managers call the critical path is the sequence of activities which, if they take any longer than planned, are guaranteed to delay project completion. Generally, the schedule for building and testing a solar car doesn’t leave much room for that kind of schedule slippage.

One perennial question with solar car team leaders is how long it takes them to realise that there is a problem requiring the team to either (a) change the way it operates or (b) pull out of the competition. Each year, I am reminded by somebody or other of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, summarised so well in the famous data visualisation above (by Charles Minard).

Napoleon’s death march (painted by Illarion Pryanishnikov)

Napoleon began his invasion with 422,000 men, and reached Moscow with only 100,000 survivors. This was not enough to do anything, so he turned around and went home again, losing most of his remaining troops to cold and skirmishes in the process. I have often wondered at what point Napoleon realised that his plan was not working the way that it was supposed to. In a similar way, there is always a solar car team that begins a last-minute “death-march,” working until 3:00 AM each night, desperately trying to finish their car. The early hours of the morning are not a good time to be making safety-critical engineering decisions, and teams which leave it so late to panic generally don’t do very well.

But enough of Napoleon. Let us listen to some men and women who know how it’s done (translations from Dutch are my own best attempts):

Olivier Berghuis, Solar Team Twente (2017): “As team leader you are the one ultimately responsible for the success of the project. That means that you have to keep a close eye on the progress of the project’s technical, communication, and financial aspects. The mood of the team and the personal development of each team member are also critically important important responsibilities of the team leader.” (“Als teamleider ben je eindverantwoordelijk voor het slagen van het project. Dat betekent dat je de voortgang van het project op technisch, communicatief en financieel gebied in de gaten moet houden. Daarnaast is de sfeer binnen het team en de persoonlijke ontwikkeling van elk teamlid een zeer belangrijke verantwoordelijkheid van de teamleider.”)

Shihaab Punia, University of Michigan (2016): “… build the best possible team and team culture …”

Photo: Jerome Wassenaar

Irene van den Hof, Solar Team Twente (2015): “I think that I am a good listener for my teammates. I try to put a lot of emphasis on that. Everyone is young and inexperienced, and that can sometimes cause problems, but together we are indeed a team, and everyone has to reach the finish line – I make sure of that.” (“Ik denk dat ik heel goed kan luisteren naar mijn teamgenoten. Daar probeer ik ook veel aandacht aan te besteden. Iedereen is jong en onervaren en dat kan voor problemen zorgen, maar samen zijn we wel een team en iedereen moet de eindstreep halen, daar zorg ik ook voor.”)

And it’s worth repeating the excellent insights from Rachel Abril, who was on the Stanford solar car team for four years (“Go fast, but not recklessly fast. Test it. Test it again. Test it more. Use failure as a foundation for success.”):


World Solar Challenge: dark horses

Recently I made a poster of the favourites (based purely on 2015 performance) for the 2017 WSC. Here is a somewhat more subjective list of new, innovative, and rising teams. All worth watching! For more details, see my annotated list of teams.

Universities and Wine

A few people have commented on my rather tongue-in-cheek post about solar car racing and beer. I don’t think the correlation there was actually spurious – there really is a tradition of excellent engineering education in the beer-producing areas of Europe, and both the beer production and the approach to engineering education have been exported around the world.

In the USA, for example, we have the influence of Stephen Timoshenko (1878–1972) at the University of Michigan and at Stanford. And we have the influence of Friedrich Müller / Frederick Miller (1824-1888) in the brewing industry.

But lest I be accused of some kind of pro-beer bias, the chart below shows national wine consumption (consumption this time, not production) compared to the date of the oldest university in the country (excluding universities less than a century old). Here we have universities (in the modern sense of the word) growing out of the wine-drinking areas of Europe, beginning with the University of Bologna. Once again, I think the data can be understood as a case of parallel exports:

World Solar Challenge head to head: USA Challengers

The World Solar Challenge is an exciting race to find the best solar car in the world. That makes for serious competition between countries. But there are also some interesting contests within countries. The most obvious is between Nuon (3) and Twente (21), who came first and second in the Challenger class last time.

Within the USA, Michigan (2, Novum, above) has generally been the best, although Stanford (16, Sundae, below) has recently been close behind (see chart at top). This year, Michigan has “thought outside the box.” If their unusual design succeeds, they could win. If not, Stanford could take over as “Best in the West.” What will happen?

World Solar Challenge: Day 5

I was very happy to see the lead seven World Solar Challenge cars arrive in Adelaide today. The cars, with their approximate arrival times in Darwin time, were Nuon (team 3, Netherlands, 10:26), Twente (team 21, Netherlands, 10:35), Tokai (team 10, Japan, 11:20) – shown above – and Michigan (team 2, USA, 11:24), Punch (team 8, Belgium, 11:49), Stanford (team 16, USA, 13:54), and Kecskemét (team 23, Hungary, 15:34) – shown below. Add an hour to those times for Adelaide time, and another 20 minutes or so for them to get across the city from the timing point to Victoria Square.

Below is another race chart (as always, click to zoom). Data is taken from the official timing board for days 1 to 5 (but two obviously incorrect datapoints have been removed). In this chart, the distance is horizontal, and the vertical axis expresses time, specifically how many hours each car is behind a car driving at exactly 97.42 km/h (that’s the speed which would get a car into Adelaide at exactly closing time yesterday). Final positions on the vertical axis correspond to arrival times (but add an hour for Adelaide time, and another 20 minutes or so to get to Victoria Square). I have included Cruisers in this chart – note the compulsory overnight stop in Alice Springs for Cruiser cars.

I expect twelve cars to arrive during the course of Friday, including the top three Cruisers. The rules specify that “Solarcars must not proceed south of Port Augusta after 11:00 (Darwin time = 12:00 Adelaide time). Solarcars already running south of this point must trailer from this time.” It remains to be seen how many other cars will squeeze in under this limit to get into Adelaide on Saturday morning. In what I have started calling the B race, cars that have been trailered at some point will try to clock up as many solar kilometres as possible, given that limit, together with the closures of the Glendambo and Coober Pedy control stops at 11:20 and 14:00 tomorrow.

And here are the car positions this evening:

WSC: the areas of competition

In the World Solar Challenge, there are – as I see it – five key areas of competition. Winning the WSC requires doing well at all five.

Solar Cells

Solar cars run on solar energy, so the efficiency of the solar cells is critical. Going by what the teams report (in the histogram above) about 23% is typical (unfortunately, efficient solar cells are expensive). To get the best out of the solar cells, good MPPT electronics are also important.


Nuon Solar Team’s very aerodynamic Nuna8 (photo: Jan Willem de Venster)

At cruising speed, virtually all the solar energy goes into combating aerodynamic drag. The speed of the car at cruise is determined by the balance between electrical energy and drag. Reducing the drag coefficient is therefore an essential part of designing a fast car. Nuon Solar Team have been particularly good at this, partly because of input from aerospace engineering students at the Delft University of Technology. Computational Fluid Dynamics and wind-tunnel testing are two important techniques here.


The UNSW team perfecting their car (photo: UNSW Solar Racing Team)

Designing a fast car is not enough to win the World Solar Challenge, however. To travel 3,000 km along the less-than-perfect road from Darwin to Adelaide requires an extremely reliable car. Designing a car to survive the conditions means paying very careful attention to mechanical design.


University of Michigan running their practice race in 2015 (photo: University of Michigan Solar Car Team)

To develop a reliable car, extensive testing is important. To quote Rachel Abril from Stanford, “Test it. Test it again. Test it more.” However, testing is equally important in developing efficient race procedures, which is why teams like Michigan and Twente will run simulated practice races.

Race strategy

As part of managing the uncertainty about future sunshine, Solar Team Twente took a military meteorologist along for the 2013 WSC.

Finally, good race strategy is essential to doing well in the World Solar Challenge. This includes the psychological aspects of race strategy common to all forms of racing, together with choosing the optimum speed for the conditions (and also, in the Cruiser class, the optimum number of passengers). Managing the uncertainty about future sunshine is also critically important.