culture

Bridgestone World Solar Challenge: The Aussie teams gunning to beat the world

While automotive manufacturing may have died in Australia, the push to create engineering solutions for the automotive industry well and truly hasn't.

Companies like Carbon Revolution (the supplier and creator of lightweight carbon fibre wheels to brands like Ferrari and Ford, and, full disclosure, a company I have a financial interest in), ARB (the four-wheel drive accessory manufacturer), and even supercar manufacturer Brabham, are putting Australia back on the map in terms of automotive engineering. But, there's a group of educational institutions getting involved and making a difference.

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge takes place every two years in Australia and tasks teams of secondary and tertiary students with developing solar powered cars capable of travelling 3000km, with vehicles competing in one of three classes. This year's event features 53 entrants from 23 countries, including seven from Australia.

Contestants can compete in three classes:

  • Challenger: This class requires a vehicle with capacity for one person, which must have four wheels and competes on speed.
  • Cruiser: This allows for a vehicle with two or more seats and competes on efficiency.
  • Adventurer: Requiring more than three wheels, access to this is for all vehicles that don't meet the requirements of the first two classes.

The event organisers describe the competition best, with the following succinct description:

"Based on the original notion that a 1000W car would complete the journey in 50 hours, solar cars are allowed a nominal 5kW hours of stored energy, which is 10 per cent of that theoretical figure. All other energy must come from the sun or be recovered from the kinetic energy of the vehicle. These are arguably the most efficient electric vehicles."

"Having made the journey to Darwin by successfully navigating quarantine, customs, scrutineering, safety inspections and undertaken event briefings, participants are ready to start their epic journey.

"Once the teams have left Darwin they must travel as far as they can until 5:00pm in the afternoon where they make camp in the desert wherever they happen to be. All teams must be fully self-sufficient and for all concerned it is a great adventure - many say the adventure of a lifetime.

"During the journey there are nine mandatory checkpoints where observers are changed and team managers may update themselves with the latest information on the weather, and their position in the field. At checkpoints, teams can perform the most basic of maintenance only - checking and maintenance of tyre pressure and cleaning debris from the vehicle."

To get a real feel for what the event is like, I convinced two of the Sydney-based teams – the Western Sydney Solar Team (run by students from the Western Sydney University) and Sunswift (run by students from the University of New South Wales) – to let me have a drive of their incredible solar-powered vehicles and fill us in on what the competition is all about.

With solar arrays now packing double the density they were 30 years ago, each year sees teams progress even further with power density. Each year solar arrays reduce in size, teams can save weight, which in turn allows them to go faster. And further.

Team members will spend up to four hours at a time in the car in searing heat. There's no air conditioning and any air directed into the cabin comes at the cost of aerodynamics, with some vehicles seeing over 50 degrees Celsius inside their enclosed shells.

So where does Bridgestone fit into the equation? Well, the Japanese tyre giant uses this event to not only supply handmade tyres to half the field (including all of the Australian teams), but to also perform research and development on its eco-focused Ecopia tyre, which is standard fitment on the electric BMW i3. It's also a similar formula used on the H/L001 SUV-based economy tyre.

So, what was it like driving a solar-powered car around a race track? Put simply – incredible. Not so much because we're being powered and driven by the sun, but more because these cars have been created by students.

These aren't multi-billion dollar vehicles honed by teams of hundreds of engineers; they're cars assembled by newly-trained university students from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Battery capacities are top secret (because striking the right balance between capacity and weight offers a competitive advantage), but we do know that cars like the Unlimited 3.0 (the single seater) can generate up to around 3kW of power. In something that weighs next to nothing, it can be a heap of fun to drive.

Team members explained that while it may look straightforward – driving 3000km on a highway – the challenges are varied. Not only does the extreme heat, both outside and inside the cabin, play a factor, but drivers have to contend with road trains, animals and other traffic while out on the road.

These vehicles aren't designed to be nimble and darty, so a sudden stop or change in direction is not only difficult, but could cost teams their lead in the race.

The Australian teams have form in this type of competition with the Western Sydney University team taking out the 2800km American Solar Challenge in 2018, beating out a field of over 30 teams to take the title.

It's also great to see Volkswagen Australia getting on board by supporting the teams with transport for the challenge.

"For us, coming on board with the Western Sydney University’s World Solar Challenge team was a no-brainer. The future of electric mobility and sustainable motoring is already on the way, and it’s vital that we support the future of Australia’s auto industry at the grass roots level," said Volkswagen Australia public relations and brand experience manager, Kurt McGuiness.

"As our own corporate head office is in Western Sydney, it’s fantastic to be able to support a local team, especially one with a track record like UWS’s, who beat out Detroit-backed big university teams in the US last year."

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge takes place from October 13-20 and you'll be able to track teams online, cheering on the Aussie contingent!

MORE: Everything Car Culture

- shares