While the students from the University of New South Wales wait for the ratification of their recent Guinness World Record attempt for the fastest solar electric car over a distance of 1000 km (620 miles), let’s have a look at the background.
The Sunswift 7 car was the culmination of thousands of hours of work by a team of UNSW students over a period of 18 months through the early perils of COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns.
Professor of Practice Richard Hopkins, Sunswift team principal, is immensely proud of everything the students have achieved just to get the car out onto the track. But Prof. Hopkins, formerly Head of Operations for the Red Bull Racing Formula One team, was able to draw on his experience in the top levels of motorsport to guide the team through the challenges.
“This is the result of the hard work of 50 undergraduate students who are very dedicated, very focused and very talented,” he said. “They were given the freedom to create. The criteria was simple: build a car that has solar power and a battery. I had very little influence over what they chose to do within that — I just wanted them to make the best engineering decisions.
“Let’s remember, these are not the best paid professional carmakers in Stuttgart working for Mercedes. This is a bunch of very smart amateurs who have taken all the ingredients and put it together in a brilliant way.”
Ironically, the team manager, mechanical engineering student Andrea Holden, carries the same name as Australia’s iconic automotive nameplate.
The Tesla Model S was used as a benchmark. Sunswift 7 weighs 500 kg (1102 lb), about one quarter of the weight of a Model S. It is so efficient that it will complete the 1000 km world record attempt on just a single charge of its solar-powered battery with a drag coefficient of 0.095 — compare that to the Tesla’s 0.208.
Chief Designer Ben Heina went back to the drawing board 57 times before he was happy with the car’s aerodynamics, as well as high performance in terms of converting energy from the solar cells to the battery, efficiency of the motors, and throughout the drivechain, plus incredibly low rolling resistance.
The weight loss was achieved by stripping out a host of safety features and also the air conditioning system. Not the most comfortable ride, I’m sure.
“And when you have an efficient car, you don’t need a lot of battery to make the whole car work,” Hopkins noted. “What we are really doing with Sunswift is a feasibility study. It’s an exercise to show what is possible.” It’s great to see the many university teams competing with their electric offerings.
Robyn Denholm, alumna of UNSW and Chair of Tesla, saw first-hand what is possible when she visited the Sunswift team, and then told the undergraduates what an amazing job she thought they were doing. So, yes, I think Elon might be aware of all the talent down under!
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