A group of Stanford students will send their newest creation, Luminos, a 375-pound solar car whose hood is nearly entirely covered with solar panels, on a race through the heart of the Australian Outback to compete in October's World Solar Challenge.
The car is powered by a rechargeable battery, it seats one person and can cruise at 55 miles per hour -- as long as the sun is out.
"We have an on-board battery that are charged by the cells," Freshman Matthew Matera said. "So if it's cloudy or there's overcast, it can still drive. If you were to utilize all the power from the cells and all the power from the battery at the same time you can achieve a top speed, but in the actual race we want to cruise at 55 so we can break even on energy."
Team leader Wesley Ford said Luminos represents a step toward creating a solar car that someone might use as an everyday vehicle. It is street legal, and the curving slope of the body utilizes aerodynamics in a way that its predecessor, Xenith, never did.
"It's more able to withstand crashes and prevent putting the driver into situations that are dangerous," Ford said. "[the World Solar Challenge is trying to push teams to building something that is closer and closer to a more practical car, something you would put groceries and a dog in."
Ford said that each detail the team puts into the car goes through a cost-benefit analysis. For example, the team wants to make sure to maximize the "wetted" area (the area covered by solar panels), to absorb as much sunlight as possible.
Luminos' curved body ensures that not all the solar panels will receive direct sunlight at any given time. Ford said this was a trade-off they made to increase stability in the Australian Outback, where desert winds can push the light car off track.
"We wanted to focus on being more robust," Ford said. "Last year, our team had three flat tires during the race. Things like that we would like to try to avoid."
The 3000-kilometer race attracts teams from all corners of the globe, from a high school in Mississippi to Tokai University, the reigning two-time champion from Japan. Ford said the race takes about five to six days, with competitors driving as far as they can (under the speed limit) until 5 p.m., where they must stop wherever they are, set up camp, and resume at 8 a.m. Since it begain competing in 1989 the Stanford team has never won, but that is not something Ford and his peers are worried about.
"We still try to be competitive and advance the technology in trying to make an efficient, fast vehicle," Ford said. "We also place a large weight in the importance of the engineering side. Having an educational experience that's fun and hands on for us students."
There will be an unveiling event for the public at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at the Volkswagon Automotive Innovation Lab at 473 Oak Road, Stanford.