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Racing a solar car across America's heartland

Solar car on the highway
The view from the lead car: the otherworldly Beam Machine cruises down the highway, followed by the chase van, in a Central Valley test run. (John Connors photos)
Cruising the Central Valley in a solar-powered UFO

Highway alert: Have you seen this car?

The solar car turns onto the highway
Amid the fields of the Central Valley, the Beam Machine carefully negotiates a turn onto the highway.

Make and model unknown, blue paint job, very low to the ground, driver difficult to distinguish through window, no license plates, no mirrors or headlights, shaped somewhat like a UFO

The police were baffled. People had question marks over their heads. The CalSol team was simulating a typical race day in the Central Valley when the three-car convoy was pulled over by the cops. Is that thing legal?

For half an hour the officer reviewed the case, then let us go on our way.

Pitstop along Highway 99
As huge trucks roll past on Highway 99, team members hold the solar shell aloft so that their colleaguies can perform a roadside pit stop.

I should clarify. "Us" is the team in the Central Valley, plus me in Berkeley, working at LBNL. After an hour on the phone debriefing five different speakers about the June 29-30 practice drive, my view became somewhat cubist: I was looking at the same object from various perspectives, one overlaid on another. My mind's eye may have suffered some astigmatism, but here's my reconstruction of the test run:

A minivan glides along Highway 99. A few car lengths back, a low, flat shape with a cockpit rolls steadily. Behind the alien vehicle, a monstrous fifteen-passenger van sprouting a six-foot antenna lumbers like an overprotective mother bear. With three drivers in the lead car, the chase car is occupied watching over the solar car, making sure it stays in its lane and far away from oncoming traffic. Arid 97-degree weather bakes the backdrop.

Vivek waits in the cockpit
Vivek waits in the cockpit during roadside repairs.

As the convoy rolled along at a conservative 45 mph, everyone was passing. Heads turned. Some people waved. Others scrabbled for cameras. They were watching the car. Greg was watching Jonny's driving: "Stay to the right." Navtej was watching the telemetry data feed into the laptop. The lead car was watching the road ahead for dangers to warn the solar car about. I guess everyone else was watching the fairings, whose opening mechanisms (for turns) were misbehaving.

Interior of trailer
The cavernous interior of Tod, the Trailer of Death.

Far away, the trailer toddled, babysat by Paul and Peter. At 27 feet long, driving the trailer amounted to "pointing it in the direction you want it to go and waiting for it to go there," according to Paul. During the race, trailers are not permitted on the same routes as the solar cars because they are so large and difficult for other teams' cars to pass.

In comparison with the track race at Formula Sun Grand Prix, the road test was more boring but more dangerous. Normal North American cars have the driver's seat left of center, while solar car drivers sit in the middle of the car. The difference means that drivers, accustomed to being displaced to the side of the lane, tend to drift leftward, positioning themselves as if in a regular vehicle. One of the goals of the test run was to familiarize our drivers with road racing, and other team members with the protocol for safe and effective convoy driving to protect the solar vehicle. Drivers also had to accustom themselves to having a foot each on the accelerator and on the brake. The hardest part was steering. Instead of a wheel, the Beam Machine has a system of pivoting bars linked to two handles. To turn the car, one handle is pushed as the other is pulled. Some modifications to the design since FSGP had made the steering more sensitive. Zigzagging in the beginning was unnerving, especially amid traffic.

Checking data on the laptop
Hunkered down beside the car to check telemetry data on the laptop. (Mike Seeman photo)

"For a while, it felt like I was doing a slalom," remarked Jonny, the first to test the revamped steering. But some things remained the same. "My butt was sore the whole time. There are some really bad roads out there and you feel every bump."

From now until Austin, we've got to push forward to be the best. We may have qualified in May and run test drives, but we can't look backward yet. The other teams that didn't qualify were probably scared into serious efforts to finish their cars. It's the difference between a working car and a winning car. I guess that's what competition is all about — enough is never enough.

Taking car apart At day's end, the team breaks down the car in a parking lot after a successful Central Valley test run. (Mike Seeman photo)