The UK solar car, Gato del Sol III finished 11th in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge – a grueling 2,400 mile race from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta.
Quadrangle: How did you become aware of the solar car team and what was your motivation to become a team member?
Matt Deye, sophomore, electrical engineering/electrical systems manager – “I joined for the hands-on experience; developing better communications skills; and for the opportunity to work with a team on a big project.”
Mark Taylor, junior, mechanical engineering/chassis project co-leader – “I was interested in working with cars. I also have a fascination with solar cars that first developed when I got to see one in person when I was a little kid. I went to Messiah College (Grantham, PA) to see their solar car. They no longer make solar cars, but it really impressed me. They are a small private Christian school, and they raced in a couple of races. Now they do solar boat racing.”
Anthony Robertson, senior, mechanical engineering/mechanical systems manager – “It sounded like fun. Like Matt said, hands-on experience was important; being able to do things, build things. And we have a shop where, if I have ideas, I can do something with them there throughout my collegiate career. Plus, working with a group of people in a team setting, is very valuable.”
Nick Such, senior, mechanical engineering/team general manager – “I hadn’t really heard of solar cars, but came to UK during Engineers Day, where I saw the first car, and met the team as they were starting work on Gato II. Then I heard about it all my freshman year. I think what really hooked me was the race and getting to see the collaboration between all the different teams – a unique engineering community.”
Kevin Wieman, junior, mechanical engineering/business team leader – “When I came to UK as a new student, I was looking to get involved. I knew someone on the team already – Anthony. He asked me if I wanted to be on the team and I said ‘Yeah, sure!’ I didn’t know anything about the solar car, but I have always been interested in solar power and solar energy, so I had actually done some research on my own. It fit into what I wanted to do.”
Quadrangle: What were some of the challenges you faced with getting Gato del Sol III race-ready?
Matt Dieruf, freshman, electrical engineering/sponsorship project leader – “It’s one thing to study books and get the theoretical approach, but buried in there is practical application. And it doesn’t just scream out ‘Hey, use this equation for this application.’ You just have to dive into a project, mess it up a bunch of times, and then learn by getting it right eventually.”
Deye – “About half of the electrical systems were unfinished as we pulled out of Lexington.”
Wieman – “Everything. It was really a very difficult project for me. I had never worked on something of such a large scale before. The most difficult part was having all the teams come together as one…and having all their little projects work in one big one.”
Taylor – “One of the challenges was losing most of the people who were there with the car’s design. Really, we had Matt Hatfield, who was the only guy around for the design of that car. He did a lot of work when it came to amending some of the design features. All of the differences you see between Gato del Sol II and III are mainly his work. Most of us didn’t know how to design a solar car but we could build and manufacture things based on what he said. Now that he’s gone, we’ve got that same trouble again.”
Robertson – “The main thing that hurt us the most was funding. It was the worst that it had been in the history of the solar car at the time we were ready to go in this race. Matt and I and a couple of other people on the team knew that if we could get just a little more support – not a lot but just a little – and by way of money – that we had enough motivation in all of us to basically almost put our coursework aside and build this car. We all felt that we would be willing to do that. We all had designs, knew how to fix it and knew what we had to do. It was just trying to figure out how we’re going to get this done… figuring out who was going to start backing us. We had a couple of meetings, and we ended up getting some money from Toyota to jump start it. The fact that they were the first ones to jump really got more people involved.”
Such – “While Toyota and several other sponsors were important to the cause, Mr. Ralph Anderson and Belcan’s financial support initially was really an enabling factor.”
Quadrangle: Belcan and Toyota are very recognizable names to have on your side.
Robertson – “Yes, exactly. It was more of a jumpstart for everything and opened the floodgates for a lot of things. Once we told the faculty, ‘We’ve got a car that can race, and we know we can build it,’ it started coming together. We hit a couple of bumps here and there, but for the most part, we were able to get it done.”
Quadrangle: While it’s good to have faculty support, one of the points of pride for the team seems to be how much work the students do. What were you looking for from faculty?
Robertson – “Most of it was electrical stuff, but we still wanted the faculty, – Dr. Stephens, Dr. Smith, Dr. Seigler – if we’re designing some kind of system on the car, we wanted to let them know the solar car project’s going on. We’re designing something and we’ll say, ‘Can you look at this for a second?’ and have them be able to say, ‘It looks all right,’ or, ‘I’ll look at it later.’ Even if we didn’t go to them, just the fact that they would be there was a really good feeling, just to know that they were there, so that helped a lot. This has always been really hands-off from the faculty, but it’s nice to know even if we don’t necessarily need their help, we can go to them if we need to.”
Quadrangle: The solar car team seems to have a good mix of freshmen through seniors from a variety of engineering disciplines. How important is it to have varying levels of experience on the team?
Such – “The nature of the electrical engineering projects is they’re a lot more complex. On the mechanical side, you can come in as a freshman and design the ballast box. It’s a box. A lot of the electrical side stuff is more complex.”
Deye –“It requires maybe a senior or an early grad student to design a system itself independently. It takes a couple of people to design a whole system.”
Wieman – “For manufacturing this car, it was more important to have the seniors and juniors because they had more experience, especially around campus and about what companies we could contact for help. But with the freshmen and sophomores, they brought in their own manufacturing styles and new ideas. Mainly, we needed the freshmen and sophomores for the next car. They’re going to be leading the next car. They’re getting their own ideas and the knowledge from the older students now.”
Quadrangle: Was there any alumni involvement?
Taylor – “We developed a list serve of former solar car members to help answer questions. They’re all still connected to the college and the team. Dale Reid from Lexmark was very helpful. There’s a lot of interest among alumni.”
Wieman – “There were a few local alums that helped. Bob Cooper from Square D would come by once or twice a month. He was a very big help with the braking system and with the steering of the car. We also had help from previous leaders of the solar car team They helped us with ideas and where to go for certain services.”
Quadrangle: What has been the most noticeable difference as a result of your success in the 2008 NASC?
Taylor – “Before the race, the solar car team was a handful of students. Now we have a massive collection of students who are eager and willing.”
Robertson – “Because of the size of the team now, we had to put a hierarchy in place – assign leaders, managers. The total number of members who built the changes on Gato III may not have been in double digits.”
Dieruf – “Now that it’s actually proven, it has captured people’s attention.”
Wieman – “When we came back to Kentucky, the whole atmosphere of the college changed towards us. Before, we were just a project, now we are an actual team within the college that is looked highly upon for recruiting students for example. Once we came back, the morale of the team was a lot higher. Everyone in the college really knows what we did and how hard we worked. In Dr. Todd’s State of the University address, he specifically quoted us for challenges we overcame and being able to get the job done. It definitely helped us in being thought of more as a successful organization than just an idea.”
Quadrangle: How disappointing was it to get all the way to scrutineering stage for the 2005 race with Gato del Sol II and not qualify?
Robertson – “The second car (Gato del Sol II) could have been somewhat of a competitive car. It just stinks that something as small as a qualifying lap could basically derail a team’s progress. There were probably a number of teams that could have done better than us, had they made it through qualifying…assuming they wouldn’t have had any problems during qualifying. We could go with Gato IV and have a way better car than we did this time but something could happen. We could come back from our last qualifying lap and blow a tire out or have something happen we couldn’t get fixed on time. Something could happen with the electrical system. We could come back with the best car UK’s ever had and not make it into the race. You have to make that car reliable enough that you can get into the race. From my perspective, having a better car and not making it in is worse than having a bad car and finishing last.”
Such – “Maybe it’s no coincidence that we’re named after a Kentucky Derby horse. It’s in essence the same thing. You can train for months, spend millions of dollars on a horse, come to the event and possibly pull up lame.”
Quadrangle: What is the team’s next step after the 2009 race?
Such – “Since August, we’ve been working along two paths: analyzing and refining Gato III, and creating a brand-new design for Gato del Sol IV. We have had four Capstone Design projects [Electrical and Mechanical] contribute to this effort. Construction will begin in June, and we plan to have this new vehicle ready for the next North American Solar Challenge in July 2010.”
Wieman – “We are going to do a little bit of modification to Gato del Sol III, revamp it a little bit and take it in June to the Grand Prix in Dallas, Texas.”
Deye – “We have purchased 2,130 individual solar cells. Money’s on loan from the university, so we have to ramp up our fundraising. We are still trying to recruit older members in electrical engineering to help with designing of systems. As far as purchasing, I feel like we’re in a good spot.”
Wieman – “In the design stage, we are pretty much ready to manufacture the car. In May, we will pretty much have all the designs done. Donations are hard to come by now.”
Robertson – “We had some problems with academics, and we need the team to keep its grades up, so we need to hand off some of the chassis responsibilities to other team members. We’re hoping to increase our chassis work, because our efficiency is a little lacking right now.”
“All this stuff looks like it’s going to be OK, but it’s going to be a lot more of a push than what these guys think. And what’s going to lean on us is one, the lead times for these other companies on parts, and two, the willingness of the other team members to work constantly through winter break and different times like that. I don’t think a lot of these guys on the team, including me, have it in them again to give it all ourselves to try to make it. We physically won’t be able to make it.”
“This time it can’t be just six guys. We need the help of the other team members that we have right now.”
Quadrangle: How does the entire experience fit into your engineering education?
Taylor – “It makes it easier to get hired. When applying for an internship, the majority of my conversation with the employer was about the solar car. I know my experience here will look good later. It makes me feel like I can go anywhere I want.”
Deye – “I’ve even gotten a job with the University, through some of the contacts I’ve had with the solar car.”
Wieman –“This experience has fit into my education completely. Just about every aspect of what I have learned in class goes into the car. When I was a beginning engineering student at UK, I was in the manufacturing class. A lot of what I learned in that class, I got to apply to the solar car. I was able to get involved in the testing of certain metals because of the solar car. Because I actually got to see some of this stuff, I feel I understand it a little bit better than most students”
Quadrangle: What was your feeling when you crossed the finish line, other than exhausted?
Robertson – “I actually felt a little down when I got there. Kind of like what happens when you’ve been building up to something. But after it sunk in – that took about a day – the only thing left to do is come back and come in first. So that’s what I’ve set out to do. Now I feel great about having gone there.”
Dieruf – “Any time you’re going to take a project from concept to completion, you realize it’s more of a marathon. You realize how you’re tested when push comes to shove. When the pressure’s turned up, some people react differently. Whether it’s – from my experience – building houses in the military, when you’ve got to get it done, you learn a lot about yourself. Crossing the finish line wasn’t the reward. It was all the lessons you learned up to that point. I think that’s what all these professional people respect. They know how much work is involved in taking something to completion. All these guys are going to be years ahead of their counterparts in maturity.”
For more information about the UK College of Engineering solar car team or how you can get involved, go to http://www.engr.uky.edu/solarcar/