In a scattered, messy workroom reminiscent of any sitcom autoshop, located in the dingy-looking “Engineering Annex” off of St. George, I sat down with Blue Sky Solar Racing, U of T’s own volunteer-run solar car building and racing hub. The group is flying themselves, along with their 300 kg homemade solar-powered vehicular masterpiece Horizon to Australia this Friday. There, they will be the only Canadian team to compete in the 2015 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge — a five-day international contest that pits 45 environmentally sustainable race-cars from 25 countries against each other racing across the scorching Australian outback.
From the full team of seventeen U of T students who will fly halfway across the globe to compete in the race, I spoke to Blue Sky Solar’s Managing Director, Zhe Gong, their team member Amir Kharazmi, and their Advancement Team Lead, Nicole d’Lyma.
TV: Tell me about Blue Sky Solar — is it true that you’re entirely student-run?
Nicole: We are a multi-disciplinary student group at U of T. We’re under the faculty of engineering, but we do have some Arts and Science students as well. What we do is basically design, build, and race solar-powered cars. We run on a two-year project cycle, so we attend the World Solar Challenge every two years. [And] yes, we’re entirely student-run.
TV: Are you fully undergraduate aswell?
Amir: [In] previous cycles, we’ve had some people who are graduate students, but this cycle I think it’s one of our youngest teams ever. Right now we have three people on our team who graduated this year, but for the most part in this cycle everyone has been an undergraduate student.
TV: What year are you going into?
Amir: I’m just going into third-year computer engineering.
Nicole: I’m going into my fourth year [of] electrical engineering.
Zhe: I just graduated.
TV: How long have you been working on Horizon?
Nicole: We started [at the] end of 2013. We spent about a year on design, and then we started the actual construction in February of this year. We’ve just been working — everything is done by us, by the students, [including] all the labour for the car as well.
TV: Where does the name Horizon come from?
Zhe: We actually didn’t start… trying to come up with a name for this car until we knew that it was really going to come together. Because there was so much uncertainty surrounding everything — we messed up quite a bit during the fabrication process — It was actually a couple [of] days before the exterior finishing of the car was supposed to be done, that we finally sat around [and] came up with “Horizon.” It just — at least for me — kind of sounded right.
I guess putting an after-the-fact meaning to it would be something like: [during] the whole manufacturing process we were looking far ahead and trying to see the end where we would go to the competition and actually race with the car. So that’s like the “Horizon” — and trying to get there.
TV: What do you think puts Horizon above the other cars that will be competing?
Zhe: In the design [of solar-powered race cars], one of the big considerations is the weight-distribution of the car. What we’ve done is design the car so that the weight is much better balanced [than in other vehicles]. That obviously comes at the cost of extra mass, but there is gain in the stability of the car — in how robust it is.
TV: How far will the car be driving?
Nicole: The car will driving 30 000 kilometers, from Darwin to Adelaide, and it’s over five days. We drive from 8 am to 5 pm every day.
TV: Have you driven the car yet?
Nicole: Yes, during testing we have. We did a five-day testing trip two weeks ago. We went to Grand Bend Motorplex, [where] they have a racetrack and a drag strip. Then, we went to Goderich airport where we did some high-speed testing on the runway.
The way it usually works [during the competition] is [you drive] about nine hours a day, and two drivers split that time. I’ll probably be driving for a couple of hours at a time, and then we’ll switch drivers, just for safety, so that the driver doesn’t get too tired.
We drive in what’s called a “caravan configuration,” [which includes] the solar car, and then there’s what we call a “lead” in front and a “chase car” behind, always with the solar car [driving] at all times.
TV: How many of you are going to Australia?
Nicole: We have 17 race crew members who will be attending the race, and they’re all U of T undergrads. Actually no, we have one graduate student. And the rest are undergrads. All 17 of them have been a part of [the project].
TV: How many people have come together to build the car in total?
Zhe: It’s been about 30 people over the last three or four months, just going at it. Every cycle we start off with a core team, so this time the design team was eleven people. It wasn’t just technical design — there’s business support for that. The first year was spent designing and the second year was spent manufacturing.
TV: How did you pick who was going to drive the car?
Nicole: Yeah, size. Size and whoever had the license.
Zhe: And the experience.
TV: Do you have an experience driving race-cars?
Nicole: I have no experience driving race cars, but I do often drive regular cars so that helps I guess.
TV: What are you personally doing to prepare for the race?
Nicole: I guess practising, [Horizon] feels quite different from a normal car, and just getting used to the different sounds of the car, the feel of it, and turning and things like that.
TV: How fast does Horizon go?
Nicole: We’ve gone up to one hundred kilometres an hour — so it can go pretty fast.
Amir: [Going fast] is not the ultimate goal — you sort of want to be cruising throughout the race, so you don’t want to just floor it and go at a hundred all the time and run out of battery. The cruising speed should be somewhere around seventy or eighty.
TV: So you’re choosing slow and steady over speedy?
Nicole: It’s more about endurance, because it’s a long race.
Zhe: You get a certain amount of energy into the car over the course of the race, and it’s up to the team to figure out how to drive the car most efficiently.
TV: Is that what you’ve been working on as well — how to drive the car most efficiently?
Nicole: Yes, strategy is a big part of the race. Like Amir was saying, you have to manage your energy throughout the race.
Zhe: There’s a lot of data collection and data processing that goes on, and then ultimately you have to know a lot about the car itself — you have to have an intuition for the car, and also intuition for the road conditions; things like that. We’re going to Australia two-and-a-half weeks early so that we can do characterization there.
TV: If you’re going to spend two-and-a-half weeks in Australia before the five-day competiton, how is that going to affect your classes?
Amir: The good thing about this is that a lot of professors try their best to accommodate you. I talked to all my professors and they were all more than happy to help me. They allow you to shift your marks from your midterm if you’re missing a lot of marks to your final… Personally I’m not really that worried about missing that much of my classes.
Nicole: I think that this is a once in a lifetime experience. I [also] think that, at least talking to my professors, they see the value in this project, so they’re willing to accommodate it because they understand that we do get a lot of different experience that will help us in our career and our education.
TV: Do you feel under pressure for being the only Canadian team competing?
Nicole: I don’t know if there’s really that much pressure — for us it’s really more about finishing the race and doing the best that we can.
Zhe: I think for most of the team it’s a really individual challenge rather than us representing Canada. It’s more like we set out to finish this two years ago and here we are doing it. It’s nice to represent Canada. When we realized [that] we were the only Canadian team it was like — oh. That’s pretty cool. But it’s more about the individual goals that we’ve set.
Amir: Just to echo what Zhe said — we came back to school, [and] classes started a few days ago, and you casually mention that you’re going to be gone for like six weeks or a month for the race, and everyone’s immediate reaction is ‘you guys are crazy.’ I think that personally, if I’m able to finish the race in a way that we’re happy, and also come back and do my studies and my other club commitments, I think that [would be] probably one of the biggest things that I will have achieved in my undergraduate studies.
TV: I only have one more question for you: How are you getting the car there?
Nicole: It’s been a crazy few days…. But today we just shipped it — its actually going out tonight at 7 pm in a crate, and it’s being flown out to Australia. In an airplane.
TV: How much does the car weigh?
Zhe: The car itself is about 300 kilograms, with driver. It seems very light, but that’s actually heavy for a solar car. [For comparison,] a normal car, I think a smaller sized car, would be around a thousand kilograms.
TV: Do you have anything else you’d like to say?
Amir: Follow us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram — we’ll be posting updates, and it’s a solar car, its running on really, really low power — it’s a cool project! Follow us!
The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge will be taking place between the 18th and the 25th of October.