New solar car teams #4: ATN

ATN Solar Car Team  (click: ) is a new Australian Cruiser-class solar car team. They are attempting something I have never seen done before – design and construction of a solar car by a team distributed across a continent. According to the initial press release:

I will be very interested to see if they can make this work and which virtual team tools and techniques they will use to do so. So far, ATN Solar Car Team has produced a number of quite different design concepts. The video below shows one of the more interesting ones, and has produced many admiring comments:

Note: Independently of this effort, the experienced Team Arrow will continue as a Cruiser-class team based in Brisbane (also associated with QUT).


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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.”):


Solar car team composition

The chart above shows 2017 team composition for the Eindhoven and Bochum solar car teams (divided by study major, not team responsibility). Not surprisingly, electrical and mechanical engineering students are the core of both teams (about half in each case) Yet there is also considerable diversity, because the business side of a solar car team requires other skills too. The Bochum team also includes a media unit, which explains the large “other” category (one of the team photographers is a biology student, for example).

The chart was constructed by parsing web pages, which may have introduced errors (also, I guessed a bit with the German words). But the main point stands – solar car teams require a diverse set of skills.


The Bochum car (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Solar Car Racing Team Sizes


Solar Team Eindhoven

I’ve been hearing some curiosity about the sizes of solar car teams, and so I checked out the online team lists for Punch, Bochum, Twente, Eindhoven, Nuon, Lodz, Michigan, MIT, PrISUm, and Sunswift. The histogram below summarises what I found. The superb Bochum team is the largest, with 77 members. Champions Nuon have the smallest team, with 16. Apparently it’s not just size that is important.

See also my list of WSC solar car teams.


Aliens: A Study in Leadership

The upcoming World Solar Challenge has turned my mind to teamwork and leadership again – since good leadership is essential to success in that event. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is an excellent film for illustrating different leadership styles:

Lieutenant Scott Gorman, the incompetent leader

Lieutenant Gorman (played by William Hope) is completely out of his depth leading the mission in Aliens. Not because of any personal flaws, but simply through inexperience:

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty-eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many combat drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

Unlike incompetent leaders suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect, however, Gorman is at least aware of his limitations, and of the fact that his lack of experience is a problem – that is why he is nervous. In the film, he was chosen as leader precisely because of his inexperience, in order to facilitate…

Carter J. Burke, the sociopathic leader

Carter J. Burke (played by Paul Reiser) has an immoral hidden agenda. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to lie, to sacrifice the innocent, and to risk the human race itself. Such sociopaths are not unknown in the workplace. Fortunately, in the film, Burke is forestalled by…

Ellen Ripley, the emergent leader

Emergent leaders can be good or bad. When there are rewards to be had, the incompetent and/or sociopathic are often quick to volunteer:

Others refuse the weight of public service;
whereas your people eagerly respond,
even unasked, and shout: I’ll take it on.

(Dante, Purgatorio VI:133–135, tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

Incompetent leaders can turn victory into defeat by persuading an entire team to choose the wrong course of action, or by turning a team into a crowd of uncoordinated individuals. In moments of crisis, however, quietly competent individuals often step forward to fill a leadership vacuum. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is one of these good emergent leaders. She has both the technical knowledge and the interpersonal skills needed to turn the survivors into a unified team, fighting against an almost indestructible enemy. Eventually she hands over to…

Corporal Dwayne Hicks, the designated leader

Corporal Hicks (played by Michael Biehn) holds just about the lowest possible military leadership position, but the rules require him to step up when the commissioned officers and more senior NCOs have died. The buck stops with him.

Ripley: Well, I believe Corporal Hicks has authority here.
Burke: Corporal Hicks has…?
Ripley: This operation is under military jurisdiction, and Hicks is next in chain of command. Am I right, Corporal?
Hicks: Yeah… yeah, that’s right.

Hicks reveals his leadership abilities by the way he remains calm in the crisis, by his interactions with others, and by the way he relies on Ripley’s advice.

For a team to achieve success, either the powers that be must designate a competent leader like Hicks, or a competent emergent leader like Ripley must step forward. Otherwise, even though the team may not be eaten alive by hideous aliens with acid for blood, failure is nonetheless assured.


World Solar Challenge: How to win

Thanks, Nigel, for those two excellent guest posts! Now back to regular programming…

I have been thinking: How exactly does one win the World Solar Challenge? There are of course many, many factors. But here are three important ones that I can see:

Don’t decide to build a solar car

Instead, decide to build, test, and race a solar car. Those last two steps should not be afterthoughts. In particular, testing and race preparation take time – serious time. The top teams will generally run some kind of simulated race before the real thing, and will typically reconnoitre the Darwin–Adelaide route ahead of time as well (usually in reverse). Several teams are doing that this year.


Solar Team Twente running their simulated race in 2015 (photo: Jérôme Wassenaar)

Don’t start a club

By that I mean a group of like-minded individuals. Instead, what you need is a team – one with a diverse range of expertise. For example, in 2013, Team Nuon included a wide range of skills, including engineering, operations research, race strategy, media, and PR.


Nuon Solar Team in 2013 (photo: Jorrit Lousberg)

A successful team needs the right leader, and it also needs appropriate team-building activities to help mould members into a true team. This needs to happen at the start of car design, but also at the end of construction. Even if exactly the same people are involved, the “build team” and the “race team” are different teams, because they are structured differently. Several of the less-experienced WSC 2015 teams have reported interpersonal frictions that revealed themselves during early road testing. These are things that need to be resolved before the race!


Nuon’s “race team” structure in 2013 (colour-coding shows “build team” skills)

Don’t re-invent the wheel

First time around, mistakes are always made. So learn from those who participated in previous races – either from team alumni (this post by Michigan highlights the importance of team continuity) or (for new teams) from teams elsewhere. Some new teams this year seem to have done that quite well, judging by some excellent first-time-around designs.


Two generations of Nuon Solar Team (Nuna6 and Nuna7, photos: Hans Peter van Velthoven)


World Solar Challenge: team clothing


Some WSC team clothing (photo credits, left to right: Twente, Eindhoven, Punch Powertrain, EcoPhoton, Nuon)

A small but important part of building a team for the World Solar Challenge is selecting a team shirt or team jacket. Team clothing can help build team spirit during both construction and racing, it can help deliver on sponsorship commitments, and it can even help to find team members in a large crowd.

In the field of sports, it is well known that team clothing can help to build a sense of “groupness.” However, this appears to be true during vehicle construction as well. For example, prior to the 2013 event, Team Nuon used their uniforms to reinforce the team structure by embroidering each member’s name and team role on their jacket. The picture above shows the team clothing of five WSC teams.