What's the worst thing that can happen when your racecar is powered by the sun? According to Nick Swinteck, team leader of the Arizona Solar Racing Team and a materials science senior at the UA, an overcast sky means being forced to go from 60 mph down to 25 mph. That what his team did through Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska as part of the North American Solar Challenge, a mostly collegiate event currently underway with teams driving their own designed and built solar cars. After a full day on the road, Swinteck took a break to talk about the challenge in the middle of an open field outside Fargo, N.D. For more info, visit the UA team's Web site and the Solar Challenge Web site.
How many teams are in the race?
There are 15 teams that qualified, mostly from colleges in the United States and Canada, although there is a team from Germany.
What did you have to do to qualify?
You have to go through a mechanical inspection, an electrical inspection and driving test, like a slalom and figure eights. You also have to show that your car is road-worthy and can handle extreme driving competitions.
How long has the UA had a team?
The UA has competed in (the North American Solar Challenge) since 1999.
Did you participate last year?
No. This is my first year, and in fact, most of the team members are sophomores, and all are undergraduates doing this for the first time. It's interesting having a young crew. We have to be up at 5 a.m. every morning, because as soon as the sun is up, we have to be on the road charging our batteries. With a young crew, they are up late, and no one likes to get up early, but we have to. Everybody has a role.
The cars look like little space saucers. Do you get a lot of people staring or waving?
We get looks; we get waves; and we're making a lot of noise on this whole journey we're going on. Sometimes it's a little dangerous, especially on interstates at 75 mph. People slow down to take pictures of us, and in the meantime, these huge tractor trailers are just plowing through.
Any cheating going on? Any crazy road antics to report?
Not too many hang-ups or bang-ups. We've had three flat tires, but nothing really major. We're still in the race, and there are no shenanigans going on here. We wake up at 5, get our solar array going and charge our batteries, and do eight hours of straight driving. This car, bless its heart, can only go a maximum of 55 to 60 mph, and we can only drive 300 miles a day. It takes a while.
The point is to draw attention to solar technologies. Do you think you're helping to accomplish that?
Just by the impact we make in every town we drive through, I think so. (The purpose is) to make noise about this technology and spread awareness. The race is helping people learn that this technology is interesting, and it does have a future; it's getting to be practical, and the cost is getting down, especially as it gets used more.
Do you see yourself participating next year?
We've really looked at other teams that are ahead of us and think we could do a better job next year. We're talking with a professor of ours, trying to get this solar-car project as our senior project--every senior has to do a project that is designed and has a sponsor, like Boeing or Raytheon, with the hope it can lead to potential jobs.
Where do you go after Fargo?
We (planned) to be in Calgary by July 23. The weather is on our side and was beautiful--all sunshine, which you need to drive at the maximum speed. When we went through Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, it was overcast. When it's overcast, you have to baby the batteries and drive 25 mph the whole way.
It's called the North American Solar Challenge: They put the "C" in there, because it's not supposed to be easy. It is really difficult. It sucks. I could have worked at a golf course this summer and had a nice cake job, but really, it is fun and cool. We've just learned that in order to compete, we have to be creative with our strategy.
How are you creative?
We pretty much drive straight through--no bathroom breaks; no food stuff. We call it the Iron Fist Soviet Union Strategy.