Solar Challenge Morocco, Last Day

The five-day Solar Challenge Morocco is over. With sandstorms, flooded roads, and mountain passes having gradients of up to 12%, it was without a doubt the toughest solar car race in the world. Six Challenger Class cars competed (for details, see my illustrated teams list with social media links).

Solar Team Twente (NL, team 21) won the event (as well as winning the day, on adjusted timings). They were followed by:

In addition, Solaride, from Estonia, had the only Cruiser Class car, and raced in Adventure Class. The photograph in the graphic is from Solar Team Twente. Official results are here.


Solar Challenge Morocco, Day 4

Four days of the five-day Solar Challenge Morocco are over. Six Challenger Class cars are competing (see my illustrated teams list with social media links for details). Cars climbed to about 1,280 m today, before descending back to about 730 m. The conditions were also challenging, with roads awash with water.

Solar Team Twente (NL, team 21) holds their lead over Agoria Solar Team (KU Leuven, BE, team 8), with Vattenfall Solar Team (Delft, NL, team 3) in third place. The photograph is from Top Dutch. Official results are here.


Solar Challenge Morocco, Day 3

The Solar Challenge Morocco is ongoing, with the race running until 29 October. Six Challenger Class cars are competing (see my illustrated teams list with social media links for details). Cars climbed to about 1,280 m today, before descending back to about 700 m. The weather was also challenging, with clouds and sandstorms.

Solar Team Twente (NL, team 21) has taken the lead from Agoria Solar Team (KU Leuven, BE, team 8), with Vattenfall Solar Team (Delft, NL, team 3) in third place. The photograph is from Hans-Peter van Velthoven / Vattenfall. Official results are here.


Solar Challenge Morocco, Day 2

The Solar Challenge Morocco is ongoing, with the race running until 29 October. Six Challenger Class cars are competing (see my illustrated teams list with social media links for details). Cars climbed to about 1,690 m today, before descending to about 700 m. Some of the mountain roads had inclines of up to 12%.

Agoria Solar Team (KU Leuven, BE, team 8) is still in the lead overall, although Solar Team Twente (NL, team 21) finished first today. The photograph is from Sonnenwagen Aachen (DE, team 7). Official results are here.


Solar Challenge Morocco, Day 1

The Solar Challenge Morocco has begun, with the race running until 29 October. Six Challenger Class cars are competing (see my illustrated teams list with social media links for details). Cars climbed to about 1,850 m today, before descending to about 730 m.

Agoria Solar Team (KU Leuven, BE, team 8) is currently in the lead, followed by Solar Team Twente (NL, team 21), Vattenfall Solar Team (Delft, NL, team 3), and Top Dutch Solar Racing (NL, team 6). The photograph is from Agoria.


Solar Challenge Morocco begins

Scrutineering for the Solar Challenge Morocco has begun, with the race running from 25 to 29 October. Six Challenger Class cars are competing (see my illustrated teams list with social media links for details). The montage above (assembled from team instagram feeds) shows the cars:

That is one 4-wheel bullet car (Top Dutch), three 3-wheel bullet cars, and two 3-wheel asymmetrical catamarans. In addition, Solaride, from Estonia, has the only Cruiser Class car.

Update: qualification lap times were:

  • Top Dutch (NL, team 6): 02:17 (68.69 km/h)
  • Vattenfall (NL, team 3): 02:23 (65.81 km/h)
  • Agoria (BE, team 8): 02:25 (64.90 km/h)
  • Twente (NL, team 21): 02:30 (62.74 km/h)
  • Chalmers (SE, team 51): 02:45 (57.03 km/h)
  • Sonnenwagen Aachen (DE, team 7): car being repaired after an accident
  • Solaride (EE, team 1, Cruiser): –

Update: the route for the event is as follows (the map below shows elevation):

  • Day 1: Agadir to Zagora
  • Day 2: Zagora to Merzouga
  • Day 3: loop from Merzouga
  • Day 4: Merzouga to Zagora
  • Day 5: Zagora to Agadir

Vattenfall is presenting a delayed live feed of the race.


Six new solar cars

For solar car fans, here are six newly revealed cars. They will race at one or both of:

SCM  NL  Vattenfall Solar Team (Delft) 

Three-wheel (outrigger) challenger (new car: Nuna11) – this year will be the last year that Delft partners with Vattenfall. Starting in 2022, Brunel will be their main sponsor. They have been recruiting for the 2022 Sasol Solar Challenge, and will also race in Morocco. Their new car features an asymmetrical top surface (to create more downforce on the left wheel), a new motor cntroller (suitable for hills), and a LiFePO4 battery.


Credit (click image to zoom)

iESC  SCM  NL  Top Dutch Solar Racing 

Challenger (new car: Green Spirit) – they are hoping to race their new car in Morocco.


Credit (click image to zoom)

iESC  SCM  BE  Agoria Solar Team / KU Leuven 

Three-wheel (tadpole) challenger (new car: BluePoint Atlas) – they have built a new car to defend their title. It is named after the Atlas Mountains.


Credit (click image to zoom)

iESC  SCM  NL  Solar Team Twente 

Three-wheel (tadpole) challenger (new car: Red Horizon) – they have built a three-wheeler this year, and will race both at Zolder and in Morocco.


Credit (click image to zoom)

iESC  SCM  DE  Sonnenwagen Aachen 

Three-wheel (outrigger) challenger (new car: Covestro Photon) – this team did very well in 2019, in spite of being blown off the road. They are excited about racing at Zolder again. They will race 2 cars at Zolder: the new car (7) and the previous car (70).


Credit (click image to zoom)

iESC  TR  Solar Team Solaris (Dokuz Eylül University) 

Challenger (new car: S11) – they missed the last ESC, but hope to attend the next one with their new car.


Credit (click image to zoom)


Solar Car META-Teams

In this post, I want to distinguish solar car teams from what I’m calling “meta-teams.” The core team is made up of the students who build and race the car, including the sponsorship, media, and logistics sub-teams. The meta-team is everybody else.


The team from Delft celebrating their 2017 WSC win in the fountain (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Alumni

The most important part of the meta-team may be the team alumni. These former members of the team have valuable experience, and often retain a strong interest in the ongoing team. Indeed, in some cases, “you can’t chase them off with a stick” (to quote one of the Dutch teams). Tapping into alumni expertise is especially important in the Dutch model, where each race cycle starts with a brand-new team of novices.

Many solar car teams would probably benefit from improved alumni relations – things like a database of alumni contact details, or regular social events with alumni.

Recruitment Panels

The Dutch model of solar car teams also includes a formal recruitment process for the new team. The recruitment panel includes alumni, but it may also contain professional HR staff brought in for the occasion.

Hands-On Sponsors

Solar car teams all rely on sponsorship, but some sponsors are more hands-on than others. In-kind sponsors offering a product or service may also provide training in using that product or service, and this can be extremely valuable.

Sponsors may also provide business help. In 2017, the team from Delft had their battery pack stranded in Singapore; the airline refused to carry it further. This could have been a catastrophe, but they reached out to their major sponsor, who was able to help them negotiate a solution involving road transport to another city, and a flight with another airline.


An artist’s view of Delft’s 2017 emergency battery flight (photo: Vattenfall Solar Team)

Faculty Advisors and University Support Staff

Faculty advisors are university staff who provide technical engineering advice. Some teams rely on them more than others, but the WSC’s requirement for a “certifying engineer” means that every team needs at least one.

Complementing the faculty advisors are university support staff who provide help with sponsorship, media, and logistics. The App State team lists university support staff and faculty advisors together on their website.

Coaches

Coaches accompany teams into the field, and assist with issues of team dynamics and morale. Dutch teams have especially benefited from having coaches.


The late Wubbo Ockels coached the team from Delft for several years (photo: Jorrit Lousberg); Erik is the coach for Top Dutch Solar Racing (photo: TDSR)

Photographers and Other Technical Specialists

Several teams will bring in a professional photographer for the race. These have included Jorrit Lousberg (Vattenfall/Delft), Hans-Peter van Velthoven (Vattenfall/Delft), Bart van Overbeeke (Eindhoven), and Jerome Wassenaar (Twente).

Other technical specialists are also sometimes brought in. In 2013, Solar Team Twente took along a weatherman from the Joint Meteorological Group of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. In 2015, the Belgian team took along a similar expert from the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium (who also blogged his experiences).

Who is on your meta-team?


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.


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):