These engineers are pushing solar racecars to new levels

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I was one of the relatively few people who saw this movie dramatizing that race back in 1996 (my family was a friend-of-a-friend of the producer). Weird to think that Jim Belushi was still a bigger box office draw than Halle Berry back then.


I thought mmediately thought of that movie.

I think I saw it in a theatre, second run, but I certainly knew about it when it came out.

I have a used VHS copy, which might be promotional, I can’t remember.

It’s not a great movie but it’s not a bad movie either.


Yeah I think “Cool Runnings, but with a solar racing team” pretty much sums it up.

Fun fact: Jim Belushi had a predilection for premium cigars and was able to convince the filmmakers to make that part of his character. As a result they ended up blowing a surprising amount of the modest film budget funding his habit.


I remember reading about these races back in the 90s. There was at least one that went across the US Midwest. One of the more interesting aspects is how they had to manage their power levels for the race. They all had batteries to run on when it was cloudy or twilight, but the batteries had to be charged by the solar panels as well so it was a constant dance of watching the sky vs. the speedo to make sure they didn’t run out of juice.

I remember the vehicles were made of bicycle parts, lead acid batteries, and usually teardrop shaped fiberglass shells. The contestants were mostly university engineering students. It really was the thinking man’s cross country rally. But also a bit boring to actually watch since the cars had to keep the speed down to conserve energy and didn’t engage in head-to-head racing. It’s the kind of thing that would be hard to televise, although in the age of streaming maybe it could work.


Around two weeks ago I was trying to remember the name of this movie during a coffee break at work. We had a discussion about solar cars. I think I saw the movie when it was still a fairly new movie. I did remember that Halle was in it so Googling gave me the name very quickly.


I was involved with several of the races in the '90s, either as a team member or supporting a team. I can confirm battery management strategy was crucial, but reliability was even more crucial – a lot of teams figured out great design and power management strategy, only to be derailed by flat tires, broken frames, bad wire connections, and the like.

In the very early days, teams with a good fundraising apparatus and/or good connections to industry also had an advantage, as they could afford more expensive solar cells and more energy-dense batteries. Rules were instituted by various races to either limit spending on key components or divide the teams into classes based on how expensive the technology they chose was.

Race speed was impacted by various factors, too. Road races had to observe legal speed limits and traffic rules – race courses were generally not closed to the public during the race. That contributed to capping speeds and limiting (eliminating, really) head-to-head racing. But in the early days, only the best cars could push the legal speed limit on a regular basis, and only then on the sunniest days.

Nowadays, solar cells and all of the other technology associated with the cars have improved to the point that the best cars of the early '90s would be remarkable only for their ability to finish the race. And the investment is considerably less – the highest-efficiency solar array that one of my teams considered would have cost $1 million for solar cells alone. Today, mainstream commercial silicon solar cells have higher efficiency than the fancy space cells we were considering and have even higher efficiency (and thus more power output) – and enough to cover our solar array would cost about $250, or about $400 if you go with the highest-efficiency silicon cells on the market.


Looks like the first two episodes are free but the others require YouTube premium.


My university participated in these races and came in first on the final day of racing one year in Australia (thus, first across the last finish line, photos, etc). But that is … meh.

The much more fun aspect occurred during a cross-country race while crossing Indiana. They had great sun, the vehicle operated at peak efficiency, were making great time at a nice speed that happened to be a little too fast according to the state trooper that pulled them over. I wonder if they framed the speeding ticket somewhere.


Notably nothing that would “build a better more sustainable world”. It’s an interesting engineering problem to build a solar powered car, but let’s not pretend it’s going to lead to practicable mainstream solutions to anything (except perhaps for people that live in deserts and have lots of time to spend driving).

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Would this design idea pass as a “solar car”? Build a minimal chassis holding a large tank for fuel, a small external combustion (‘steam’) engine, and a large, lightweight Fresnel lens. Instead of a standard ignition system, focused sunlight ignites the fuel. Don’t run this at night, kids – unless you include a battery powering a bright light to replace the missing sun. Easy-peasy.

How many times do you have to light the fuel in an external combustion engine? You could just engage the park brake while you applied a magnifying glass just once. Interestingly, one thing that construes the modern application of the steam engine in motor vehicles is the startup time and the requirement to build up a head of steam. But of course that might be obviated by making it an electric hybrid. I would observe though, after watching that solar race, it bought home a very important feature of Lithium batteries - when they overheat or are punctured by impact, exposure to the air sets them instantly on fire and they burn with a vengeance that nothing will put out. Reckon we will see a lot of vehicle fires when more electric cars hit the road.

If they’re pushing their solar racecars, then they still need work. (Or it’s night.)

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