For the first time in its 20-year history, the U.Va. The Solar Car team will take part in an endurance race during the Formula Sun Grand Prix. The team will travel to Topeka, Kansas on July 5 to pilot a new solar car that took two years to build. Over a three-day period, they will try to do the most laps on the course while competing against solar cars from other universities.
Solar cars are electric vehicles to drive entirely powered by the sun. Building a solar car from scratch is no small task – building a car requires careful coordination of design work, electrical engineering and structural assembly.
For Nicky Palmer, solar manager of U.Va. Solar Car and a rising fourth-year engineering student, racing the car this summer marks the culmination of the team’s hard work.
“I think the car is almost ready [for the race]”, Palmer said. “All the pieces are there. We just need to put them together and make sure everything is working properly. This is a really exciting step in a long process.
A major key to the development of this car has been the team’s strategic use of time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other university organizations, the Solar Car team was unable to meet in person during the 2020-21 school year, so they used the time to work proactively on designs.
“Almost everything we did was online,” Palmer said. “We used that time to focus on a lot of design work for a new car, so planning everything, inventing [computer-aided design] models, and start all the electrical design. We have a lot of tools thanks to U.Va. that allow us to run simulations and create designs completely online.
Zach Khan, technical director of the U.Va. Solar Car and Class of 2022 alumnus also noted that the team’s virtual work during the pandemic has set them up for success this academic year.
“We started designing the new car last year and once we got back to Grounds this fall, a lot of that design work could be completed,” Khan said. “[Spring] semester, we were able to focus a lot of our attention on manufacturing, so just take these designs and make them.
Khan expressed new appreciation for working on the car in person with other team members last year.
“A lot of our work for the car is hands-on and team-based, whether it’s building components or testing them,” Khan said. “It’s so much easier to collaborate with people when you’re in the room with them, doing research together, or brainstorming ideas with each other.”
Palmer believes the return to in-person work has been energizing, transformative and critical to the team’s success.
“I really think the most important thing about the transition to working in person was the fact that we were all so motivated again to be around each other and finally work side by side,” Palmer said.
In addition to working on the car together, members of the solar car team noted how working towards a common goal also creates fruitful social relationships with other members.
“There’s definitely a sense of camaraderie with everyone else on the team,” Palmer said. “Everyone is super nice and we’re all like-minded people who care about engineering, sustainability and trying to build something substantial. I always love seeing them around Grounds and I made a bunch of team friends.
Khan also said fostering meaningful social connections is integral to the success of the team and the solar car.
“We try to have social events outside of all the engineering work, sometimes to reward all the hard work of our members and sometimes just to do fun things together,” Khan said. “Team cohesion is certainly important when you have to build something as large and multifaceted as [the solar car]. You want to make sure people can trust each other and it works best when they know each other.
Palmer expressed his gratitude for the tangible experience he gained with the team throughout his time at U.Va. Solar car.
“We’re working on a large-scale cross-disciplinary project with teammates from a ton of different majors,” Palmer said. “It’s more like real-world engineering. You’ll be working with a bunch of different people from different fields all coming together for a common goal, like building a solar car.