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Cover of Engineering Advantage Magazine, Fall 2018 issue

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Solar Speed

In a “Star Wars”-like setting located in the Mojave Desert, a solar car created by a team of Cal Poly students eclipsed 50 mph this month, marking the fastest speed the Cal Poly team has achieved.

While the team did not break the 56-mph world record set in 2014, it overcame many obstacles to reach a top speed of 51 mph.

“It shows that with a little improvement, we can easily go 65 mph,” said Lacey Davis, an aerospace engineering student who drove the car.

Davis is a member of Cal Poly’s Prototype Vehicle Laboratory, also known as the PROVE Lab. For roughly three years, Cal Poly students have worked to build a solar car that could break the world speed record. Last weekend, the team went for that mark at El Mirage Lake in San Bernardino County.

The idea to pursue a world record came from Graham Doig, a former aerospace engineering faculty member who had created record-breaking solar cars himself.

Last year, electrical problems hampered the car, named Dawn, and the anticipated record attempt was called off. Then Doig, the mentor, took a job in private industry.

While Aerospace Engineering Professor Paulo Iscold is better known for creating airplanes that break records, he offered to take on Doig’s role.

“I saw it was a good project for the students,” he said.

The first challenge entailed re-working the electrical system that had stalled the car last year. But other systems needed re-tooling as well, Iscold said. And, by the time the car was ready, the optimal time to go for the record – the longest day of the year, when energy from the sun is strongest – had long passed.

Still, the team  went forward and tested the car in Santa Margarita earlier this month. Then it traveled to El Mirage, where the Southern California Timing Association has performed timed speed runs for 50 years. In that other-worldly setting, Davis squeezed into the car’s cockpit and set out to break the record.

“It felt like I was driving on another planet – like pod racing on Tatooine!” she said, referring to the “Star Wars: Episode One” scene. “I think that actually suppressed my fear of hitting an object or running the car off the track because it was so open and vast on the El Mirage lakebed. It was also inspiring to know how many other world records and vehicle testing had been done out there for other major projects. “

The car had a speedometer in it. Meanwhile, members of the team verified the speed by comparing it to a chase car. While the car came up just shy of the record, Iscold said that setback provided a good lesson for the team.

“Not everything in life goes exactly as planned,” he said. “Overcoming failure has become part of the engineering process.”

The team did have to overcome obstacles – including Doig’s departure and the electrical issues.

“Overcoming those obstacles was unfortunately very taxing on the team,” Davis said. “However, we did get some new faces to the project, and their dedication to persevere through the challenges with us made it that much more obvious how passionate they were about Dawn and engineering.”

The team did get Dawn up and running, Iscold said, and lots of data was collected. So this year’s effort, Davis added, was an important building block.

“We plan to try again next year because there are only a few changes that actually need to be made to the car’s solar array and electrical system to get those last few miles per hour in,” she said. 

 

 

 

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