“Why make solar cars?” I have asked myself this question after working on the car for nights in a row, after lying to my parents that I’m studying for an exam what I’m actually fabricating the aerobody, after saying ‘No’ to ski trips with friends because it’s a Saturday (official Blue Sky work day), after spending weekends sleeping on a rickety chair for a year as I travelled to the city to work on the car.
Many friends in the solar car fraternity have tried to answer this question. Zhe Gong’s (Blue Sky) and Rachel Abril’s (Stanford) response has been “We do it because it challenging”. I do agree that driving at highway speeds across the continent of Australia using the same power as that of a microwave is challenging…. especially as a student team who designs, builds and races a world class solar car in their free time. This reason usually works as a motivator for most people I interact with. However, a manager in a major automotive OEM once asked me “Why do all this for – To remake a decade old design of an inverted wing with a few solar panels on wheels?”
For starters solar racing has evolved over time with solar cars becoming smaller, lighter and faster pushing the limits of the best technologies around. On a larger scale however I think we do it because it’s unpopular but important. We do it so that the dream of making humans a sustainable species is kept alive. A tangible example of this dream is that of the ongoing “Tesla revolution” which in-part was brought about by solar racing alumnus JB Straubel (Stanford Solar Car Project). Another example is our very own Tom Rodinger who started Nanoleaf and produced the world’s most efficient LED light bulb.
One could argue that the project has achieved its goals with the recent popularisation of electric vehicles. But I beg to differ. As of 2013 electric vehicles sales made for only 0.0006% of total car sales in the world. While another solar racing alumnus Chetan Maini (Michigan Solar car team) has been trying to start an electric revolution in the developing world; the difficult journey of making commercially successful inexpensive, non- luxury, standard electric vehicles still lies ahead.
I believe that solar racing acts as a cradle for forging individuals with mindsets bent on finding solutions to many such global issues pertaining to sustainability. The long, bitter- sweet process of making a world class solar car with limited resources toughens one to face challenges. The strong bonding amongst team members creates a social setting conducive to fearlessly taking on new challenges. While the “Blue Sky Thinking” and the resulting passion for creating a better future prepares one for perseverance.
Sure, the car itself might not be fully practical on its own but the heart of the project: development of individual members poised to make a difference is where its real value lies.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead