When I attended a mass meeting for the Solar Car team in Fall 2004, I had no idea how rapidly and completely I’d be drawn in. I was aware of the team, having seen 2001′s M-Pulse on display on a previous visit to Michigan. But I was totally unprepared for the way the Team would come to totally define my college experience and leave a lasting mark on my life. I wasn’t even sure I could be useful – sure, I had a real interest in aerodynamics, but what did I know about designing and building a solar car?
That changed pretty quickly – under the excellent tutelage of Chris “Skip” Vermillion, I rapidly got involved in the Momentum team’s Aerodynamics Division. While most of the design effort was complete, very little of Momentum actually existed. Chris stepped down from his role as Aero Director in December ’04 to focus on his PhD studies, and I was named his successor. Suddenly I – 17 years old and 6 months removed from Petoskey High School – was expected to manage student volunteers, organize work sessions, and turn a roll of carbon fiber fabric into the chassis for a $2 million solar powered supercar. It was a bit of a paradigm shift.
While I didn’t join the ’05 race crew, watching that team win NASC was intoxicating, an extremely proud moment. I helped build that. It’s perhaps the truest motivation for an engineer, watching your creation succeed beyond expectation. Seeing that success made me even more excited to start the ’07 project, this time from square one.
The 2007 project marked a new direction for Michigan Solar Car. We were a young team, with most of the core and all of the leadership of the Momentum project graduating or otherwise moving on. We had a new focus and goal: winning the World Solar Challenge. With that came greater pressure to be even better than the great team that preceded us. I was selected to be the new Engineering Director, a role beyond what I’d ever envisioned for myself, and given a whole new set of responsibilities and challenges. We’d definitely have to learn as we went.
A major “course adjustment” to our new direction came with the release of the aptly named “Challenge Class” regulations for the World Solar Challenge… in June of 2006, only 16 months before the race! It was indescribably deflating to throw out an aerodynamic design we’d poured hundreds of hours into and finally perfected. But to the great credit of the whole team, we quickly rejected the easy way out and didn’t abandon our goal to Win the World. We identified a plan and moved forward. We even gave ourselves a new challenge – the wildly ambitious but innovative and potentially world-beating concentrator system.
It was rarely pretty – I know there are many, many things I could have done better – but through skill, creativity, and often brute force of will, we got that car built with just enough time to spare for a shakedown cruise in Michigan and a dust-devil plagued mock race in Australia. We were tired, edgy, and accosted by sand flies, but when the green flag came out for WSC 2007, we were confident that we could win it all.
Well you know how that went. As Head Strategist, my seat was just behind the driver in Chase. After a chaotic start for the support vehicles, we were finally settling into race mode when I watched Continuum slam into the back of lead and then drift slowly across two lanes of traffic before coming to rest against the far curb. There are certain “where were you when…” moments seared into everyone’s memory. Needless to say, that one’s pretty high on the list in my brain.
If there were any moments of despair, if anyone had any thoughts of giving up on the race, they didn’t last more than a few minutes. The goal we had fought for for two years was out the window, but very quickly, it was “how do we fix this?” We became closer as a team than I had ever thought possible, bonded together by adversity. Continuum was fixed in a day, made even stronger than before. We cruised out of Darwin, hell-bent on making Michigan proud.
My favorite memory of solar car came a few days after the crash after we crossed into South Australia. The skies were sunny, the car was performing beautifully, and the concentrators were finally showing their true capability. We flew through Coober Pedy and Glendambo, even completing a tire swap in about 7 minutes. We passed the Solar World team (overhearing them saying “[expletive]! Here comes Michigan!” over CB, in German of course). As the day was winding down, we began to think we could make Port Augusta, the final control stop on the race. The models said we’d just make it. The strategists in Chase – Jeff Ferman, Evan Quisenberry, and myself, had a brief debate and decided to go for it.
For a couple hours we watched the batteries slowly expend themselves. The whole time we were poised to dial back the speed to avoid killing the batteries, but Continuum just kept going. Entering Port Augusta, our batteries were almost flat, it was nearing 5:00, and a string of stoplights stood between us and the control stop on the far end of town. I think that was as nervous as I got on the whole race. Even our observer (a race official in Chase) was noticeably excited. Finally we made the turn into the stop at 5:09 PM (one minute before the end of the race day – any longer and we’d take a penalty). The telemetry said we had -10 watt-hours in the batteries (thankfully the models were a bit conservative). We’d hit it right on the nose, after over 700km of travel for the day. I don’t think I was ever more proud and excited during the race – certainly it was the best performance Continuum and our team put together in WSC.
Watching the Quantum team, I’m once again filled with pride. Their innovation, creativity, and dedication have taken Michigan Solar Car to a whole new level. While Continuum needed an ace up her sleeve (the concentrators) to compete against the best in the world, the Quantum team started from a clean slate, shook up all of our methods, worked tirelessly to get the very best of everything, and put themselves on equal terms with the world’s elite. But more importantly, they’ve left behind an excellent legacy and foundation for the teams that will follow.
The great Michigan football coach Fielding H. Yost said, “[L]et me reiterate the Spirit of Michigan. It is based on a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways. An enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan Men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts. And a conviction that nowhere, is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.” The Michigan Men and Women of the Quantum team certainly live up to that Spirit, carrying the Block M, the Winged Helmet, and Michigan pride to distant Australian outposts. And, guided by that matchless experience, I fully expect that they will continue to do so throughout their careers, to the great benefit of us all.
This post was written by Garrick Williams. Garrick graduated from Michigan in 2009 with a Masters Degree in Aerospace Engineering. He currently works as a Guidance, Navigation, & Controls Engineer at Orbital Sciences in Chandler, AZ. He estimates that > 50% of every job interview he’s ever had has been spent talking about Solar Car.