Just as co-eds are getting wrapped up in college football, a group of Stanford University students are dusting the sand off their shirts after a week in the Australian outback.
The team designed, built, and raced a solar-powered car 1,864 miles from the edge of northern Australia to the southern port of Adelaide.
Forty-eight teams made up of high school and college students from 24 countries competed in the cross-continental race, which promotes advanced solar-power technology that could fuel cars of the future.
And although there is no cash prize, the first team to cross the finish line wins more than bragging rights. Many of these students go on to accept coveted engineering job offers.
Stanford students that participated in the past were offered jobs and internships with prestigious companies like Tesla Motors, Apple and Google.
The Stanford team spent two years designing and building Luminos, a carbon fiber car that can travel up to 70 mph and is powered almost entirely by the sun.
During the race the car averaged between 40 and 55 mph due to overcast skies and rain that often blocked the sunlight.
In addition to the overall design, the students built an original motor for the car.
“Most teams just buy kits as an off the shelf solution to motor design but our team actually developed our own,” said recent Stanford graduate and team director, Wesley Ford.
“We learn a lot from designing and building almost everything on our car and we place a very high value on that,” said Jason Trinidad, an undeclared sophomore who took turns driving the car.
“It may cost us in placing in the race, [but] it does produce exceptional engineers.”
The team has 50 members who pitched in throughout the process, while 16 traveled to Australia. Stanford first participated in the challenge in 1989 and Luminos will be the team’s eleventh entry.
Professors say that students had guidance but no actual participation from faculty or professionals. The race is a chance for students to get their hands dirty and advance alternative energy technology at the same time.
“It’s good that challenge is in the title. It pushes the envelope and now things that weren’t possible before are possible today,” said Stanford lecturer and team advisor Sven Beiker.
Each day, the cars travel as far as they can until 5 pm to avoid fender-benders with kangaroos that cross the road at night. The blazing sun, although necessary to power the car, provides other challenges.
“The Outback is hot, lotta flies, not very comfortable place to be when you’re driving,” Ford said. Students on the solar team put in four-hour shifts driving in 90 degree weather, jammed in their single passenger car.
“They will probably come to a sense of, ‘Oh, you know what, a car that actually has air conditioning or a nice stereo or something like that, that makes a lot of sense,’” said Beiker.
This year the race encouraged more practical or useful designs that included four wheels and a roomier inside; previous vehicles had two wheels and barely enough room for the driver.
“Super efficiency is one thing, but to get consumers to subscribe to a high efficiency vehicle, that’s a whole different story,” said Beiker.