Solar car cross-country race kicks off at UT


Emily Ng

Members of the UT Solar Vehicles Team help fellow teammate Cynthia Luu into the vehicle after fixing a few mechanical errors. The team placed 6th in the race at the Circuits of the Americas on Saturday.

Kylie Fitzpatrick

Student-engineered solar cars began a cross-country race from Austin to Saint Paul, Minnesota, in an event hosted by the University’s Cockrell School of Engineering on Monday.

Ten teams from universities including UT, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Iowa State University as well as a handful of international universities are participating in the American Solar Challenge, a competition to design, build and drive solar cars.

Teams departed from Winship Circle on campus Monday morning, after qualifying in the Formula Sun Grand Prix, a closed-course race held at the Circuit of the Americas track on July 14-19.

Event coordinator Gail Lueck said teams were given a day to rejuvenate before tackling the challenges of a road course competition, which is only held every two years.

“You’re transitioning from a track event where you know all your pit crew and your materials are sitting in a garage and transitioning to where you’re going to be on the road.” Lueck said. “So, you need the right equipment packed into your vehicles.”

Lueck, who is also a member of the board of directors for the nonprofit organization Innovator’s Educational Foundation that organizes the race, said coordinators of the event pride themselves on offering a hands-on learning experience.

"This is not a textbook problem, you don’t go look up in the back, here’s the answer on how to design, build and drive a solar car," Lueck said.

Teams not only deal with the challenge of engineering a vehicle, but also with the logistical challenges of fundraising, managing a budget and creating a business plan.

"There’s a lot of stuff you learn having to build something and making it work under time and budget pressure that’s kind of hard to learn from a book," said Fred Engelkemeir, a graduate electrical engineering student who has been a member of the University's TexSun team for nine years.

Lueck said the teams from universities in other countries have the additional challenge of getting their vehicle to the U.S. 

"The international teams have to deal with their own international logistics of how to get over to the U.S. and clear customs with essentially an experimental vehicle." Lueck said.

The race aims to increase visibility and engagement of STEM students in the U.S., by offering a multidiscipline, hands-on project.

Katie Baker, a junior at Austin’s Anderson High School and member of the University of Texas TexSun team, said she enjoyed the learning experience and wants to study engineering at the University after she graduates.

“I got to actually put epoxy on the wheel covers and sand it down.” Baker said. “The team has been so welcoming and I would love to do this as a student. It’s so much fun.”