Racing the sunset; reflections on the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, 2015.
The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (WSC) is a biennial international event, held in October (the southern hemisphere’s spring), that runs north to south along the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Adelaide (3022km), right through the heart of the Australian outback. It’s a showcase for (mostly) students of university engineering departments from around the world, with lightweight solar vehicles and a full support team. Officially it is not a race – hence the name ’Challenge’ (racing is not permitted on public highways). Teams can only drive between 8am and 5pm. They must abide by all local and national traffic regulations, and any significant breaches of rules and regulations incur strict penalties. Any breach of the law leads to disqualification – and shame, for bringing the event into disrepute. The focus on safety-first really pays dividends. In its near 30-year history, there have been few accidents, and no fatalities.
But of course, in practice, both on and off the road, things don’t always go according to plan. In the harsh environment of the sizzling Australian bush safety isn’t just about driving well. It’s about food and water, temperature control, snakes and spiders, and getting enough sleep on the hard sun-baked ground. So it really is a challenge; to champion both solar technology and vehicle design; and then not just survive the 4-6 day drive, but to do so professionally, with grace and honour, and maybe even a little style and good humour.
And that will be my abiding memory of the WSC; the student teams that worked so hard, so well together, with style and humour. They didn’t just finish the race. They were also truly inspiring. So much so that I came away not just cheered in terms of our scientific and technological progress, but also with a little more faith in humanity.
The start line may be in Darwin, in Australia’s sunny and scorching Northern Territory, but of course the real start is on drawing boards and in workshops around the world as the cars are designed, built and refined. Many teams have been entering the WSC for many years, some with the same car, some with iterations on older cars, and some competing for the first time, with entirely new cars. They vary in design, but they are all incredibly lightweight, aerodynamic, and energy-efficient. Some cars are more sophisticated than others, and some teams are more organised than others. That largely depends on funding. Top teams attract millions of dollars in sponsorship. The lower ranking teams get by on tens of thousands, and lots of innovation, creativity, and plain hard work.
The teams are larger than you might expect, generally consisting of 20-30 people. That includes drivers, mechanics, engineers, strategists, and perhaps most importantly, chefs. The teams need to travel to Darwin from universities around the world, and then travel with the solar car. So there is a fleet of vehicles for each team; the scout car, reporting on road conditions far ahead and scouting for campsites; the lead vehicle, with flashing lights heralding the car’s approach; the solar car itself, all shiny and sleek; the rear support vehicle, which includes the WSC Observer (all volunteers, of which i was one); then a trailer – crucial if the solar car breaks down – and a van with all sorts of supplies, from tents to toilet paper. The World Solar Challenge champions low carbon vehicles, but it is not a low-carbon event. WSC officials patrol the route in 4-wheel drives, which are at least plug-in hybrid vehicles. But the question lingers; could more be done to reduce the carbon footprint of this celebration of sustainable, energy-efficient transport?
After days of safety checks (the ‘scrutineering’) and time trials on a local circuit, the official start is a professionally-choreographed media event, with the world’s press in attendance, and the residents of Darwin (and more than a handful of international visitors) out in force to wave the cars off on their way. For the teams, it is all about a very early start and the logistics of getting the car onto the grid. The team’s fleet needs to be ready to roll right on schedule from the wings. It is absolutely not about pushing your foot down hard on the accelerator.
Within minutes we are out of town and in the bush, some of it already aflame in the dry heat and up close to perhaps the hottest major highway in the world. The fleets form conveys of sorts, but strict rules on vehicle separation ensure other teams and local traffic can over take easily enough. One fleet over taking another is something of an event, and generally begins with a very polite radio request, which is usually graciously granted. Most of the cars run at an optimal speed depending on the car design, the battery charge, and the available sunshine. So the challenge isn’t to go as fast as possible. It is about maintaining that optimal speed for as long as possible between the hours of 8am and 5pm. And this raises challenges of its own. How to maximise solar battery charging between sunrise and 8am, and 5pm and sunset? How best to keep the driver comfortable, and hydrated, without too many toilet stops? When to change drivers? How to fix any mechanical problems as fast as possible on the road side? The real art is preparation and practice.
We Observers are cascaded down through the teams at the compulsory check points (roughly daily), where we switch to the next team following in behind. This minimises any bias, and ensures teams and Observers are cross-checked. The main role of an Observer is simply to record observations. The teams are supposed to know, and interpret the rules and regulations themselves. We are the eyes and ears of the WSC organisation, but not its voice. If any disputes arise, our notes form an historical record of events, in conjunction with satellite tracking, and the official time keeping.
However, as representatives of the WSC, we also have an important role to play in maintaining safety, and the teams cannot help but turn to us as the face of officialdom, seeking advice. The big question on the road is this: in the Australian outback, with a team of tired, competitive students, a fleet of big vehicles, and a lightweight solar car with a large potentially-inflammable battery, what isn’t a safety issue?
Fortunately, good design and common sense generally prevails, and I’m pleased to say I never had to note down any major breaches of the rules – although i did see one battery burst into flames, and an appropriately rapid evacuation by the driver. I witnessed some incredibly creative thinking in the occasional tight spot, and the kind of team work that at times left me awestruck. The World Solar Challenge may not be a race as such, but when you are racing against the sunset, it can be the most exciting and challenging sporting event under the sun.
I didn’t see the winners crossing the finishing line. I was still observing further down the field. You can read about them elsewhere. To summarise, Holland has it nailed. And I wish those winning teams well, with their big sponsors and future potential. But more than any event, this one isn’t about the winning. And it’s not just about the taking part either. It’s about changing the world. One vehicle at a time. More needs to be done. Let’s all do it.
You can learn more about the World Solar Challenge at their website; or watch a video of highlights (with a funky specially written sound track). If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section below.