The route is long and treacherous. Completing the journey from Darwin to Adelaide through Australia’s red centre requires a sturdy vehicle and a strong will.
The teams competing in the World Solar Challenge earlier this month faced blistering 40 degree desert heat, apocalyptic thunder storms, vicious cross winds and truck convoys. As well as a bemused kangaroo or two.
There was also an unseasonable lack of sunshine for most of the course, a major issue when your vehicle’s motor runs on it.
Of the 16 cars that began the 3000km course in the cruiser category of the challenge, only three made it over the finish line within the official time window.
But one of the teams believes their sun-powered vehicle can go much further. Third-placed, Queensland-based Clenergy TeamArrow have their sights set on achieving a world first: a road-legal, solar-powered, luxury car.
For most of last week’s race, TeamArrow’s chief technical officer Cameron Tuesley was bundled in the back of an SUV, eyes fixed on his tablet.
Tuesley’s device was running Splunk and a home-brewed machine learning system to analyse the 600 data points coming off the ArrowSTF cruiser each second, delivered over a kilometre range WiFi network atop the chase car.
“For my sins as a software guy I end up running strategy,” he told Computerworld. “Not very glamorous job. But I have a cool temperature and I’m very close to the esky. Could be worse!”
Like it is for the drivers and passengers in the team’s car up ahead. With weight and power at a premium, there is no air conditioning or sound-proofing.
“We are dealing with temperatures at outside air levels,” Tuesley says, “but that’s the only thing that makes it uncomfortable.”
The Arrow STF two-seater coupe otherwise provides a smooth and stylish ride, says Tuesley.
“The styling cues have been taken from real vehicles. We set out from day one to build a real car. It’s a very spacious car inside. It runs a Lotus steering system. It has commercial suspension. It has normal racing car seats,” he explains.
“The design goal was to be the first Australian road registered solar electric vehicle that was highly desirable to the general population.”
TeamArrow hope to make a road-ready ArrowSTF commercially available by the end of next year. The race is on.
Road to reality
The World Solar Challenge was first held in 1987, the brainchild of Danish-born Australian Hans Tholstrup.
Long considered something of a novelty, there is a growing sense that solar powered cars will one day feature on real roads alongside the gas-guzzlers.
“The point of this challenge is not just to go fast or to develop technology that will never reach the mainstream. Our founder Hans Tholstrup, our faculty, and competitors past and present, are all determined to make sustainable, energy positive, solar electric cars and renewable technology a reality,” says event director Chris Selwood.
“We now turn our attention to the most relevant issue of all – do these cars have what it takes to appeal to the consumer?”
While the – often peculiar looking – vehicles in the challenger class are judged on speed alone, cruisers are judged on their practicality and performance, with marks for comfort and mainstream appeal. TeamArrow made the switch from challenger to cruiser for the first time this year, and were marked in third place overall.
Back at their base in Brisbane, the team is now converting the car to make it road-legal, with much of the focus on the tyres and suspension.
“That will be a world first if we can pull that off because nobody has attempted to take one of these vehicles and make it a genuinely day to day driving vehicle,” said Tuesley, who by day is managing director of IT provider Integral.
“It’s going to be a different sort of car. It’s going to be an exotic car. We don’t see this as a mainstream idea necessarily. But I think they can be.”