The University of Michigan is known for being among the best of the annual North American Solar Challenge, netting the top spot in the solar-powered electric car race seven times.
In the regular World Solar Challenge, however, it has been more of a contender instead – coming in third place five times. Perhaps this year its newest lopsided solar car, called Generation, might change that.
The World Solar Challenge is an 1,800-mile, week-long endurance contest across the continent of Australia that takes place every other fall, according to the university. More than 100 members from schools and colleges across the college, as well as major sponsors such as Ford and Siemens, are involved in this American entry for the Challenge.
With the most significant change for this year being that entries had to have four wheels instead of three, the team behind Generation had to essentially start from scratch and outline a new vehicle shape. As a result, the component they
had the most leeway with wasn’t the wheels, but rather the driver’s seat—nicknamed the “butt bucket” by the team because that’s essentially what it is. In the old three-wheeled cars, the butt bucket was situated right behind the front wheel—encased in the same fairing, actually.
Under the new rules, the wheels can’t be right next to each other, so if the team were to arrange them like wheels in a regular car, the bucket would hang down below the lower surface, reducing the car’s efficiency. So the team didn’t put it there.
“We have the driver and two wheels all in one giant fairing on the left side of the car and on the right side, we have two small fairings—one for each wheel,” said Eric Hausman, team project manager and senior in industrial and operations engineering, in a statement. “Aerodynamically, it’s about creating as few bumps on the surface as possible. The design also reduces shading of the solar cells by placing the canopy to the side.”
The end result of this significant shift in the vehicle? What’s billed as a “calculated effort to design the most efficient car possible.” Some might describe Generation as being reminiscent of a motorcycle with a sidecar from the front, but whatever the look, how it plays out when it actually hits the roads in Australia should be an interesting and exciting time for those racing it.