If the buzz surrounding the recent launch of Tesla’s Model X is any indication, consumers are interested in disruption in the automotive industry. With Tesla setting the standard for innovative electric cars, when it comes to solar it’s a group of Australian university students that’s leading the way.
The Sunswift Solar Racing Team, made up of around 60 business, strategy, design, and engineering students at the University of NSW, was established in 1996, when fourth year electrical engineering student Byron Kennedy was looking for an interesting thesis topic.
The fifth and latest iteration of the team’s solar car, eVe, was originally created for the 2013 World Solar Challenge, a race from Darwin to Adelaide, and became the world’s fastest electric vehicle over a distance of 500km last year. The car reached almost 107km/hr, breaking the 26 year old record of 73km/hr in the process.
Now, the Sunswift team is on track to make eVe the first road legal solar passenger car in the Southern Hemisphere.
Hayden Smith, project director of Sunswift, said that the idea to make eVe road legal came from people outside the team.
“A lot of people were interested in the fact that this car did in fact look like a normal car. They would say, ‘this is really cool, is this ever going to be on the road?’, and we would always have to have the awkward answer that it’s not really a road car, and that inspired a bunch of us, and we set some goals,” Smith said.
With the team relying on sponsorships, donations, and UNSW funding to run, they took to Pozible to fund the road legal project last December: to meet the Australian Design Rules, the national standards for vehicle safety, the car must undergo a costly redesign and and rebuild.
“There’s a lot of tiny little things that we have to comply with…there’s a lot of design work that has to go into that, and then it’s not just the design but writing the reports, sending those reports off to the government, and discussing those reports with the government until they’re happy with it,” Smith said.
Given the aforementioned buzz around the Tesla, there is surely potential for what the Sunswift team is doing to make waves in the wider automotive market, but Smith said it’s not in the team’s immediate plans.
“We’re not really set up at present to do it, but the best analogy we always give is that Sunswift are a lot like Formula 1 racing teams in the sense that the intention is not that you see that car on the road for everyone driving, it’s really about being what pushes the boundary of technology,” he said.
“A lot of niche and advanced interesting car industries and groups are really what push the teams in the cars. In our case, it’s our car being built solely out of carbon fibre; there’s never really been a sports car built completely out carbon fibre. We save a huge amount of weight and we hope that in the future, we’ll inspire manufacturers to develop similar kind of ideas or methods that we’ve used.”
Smith said that while the group has had interest from large car manufacturers, a volunteer student group trying to liaise with large multinationals is difficult.
For now, the team is focused on getting eVe on the road within the next four months, with a celebratory drive across the Harbour Bridge planned when the car is registered. As well as another go at the World Solar Challenge, the team also hopes to drive through regional NSW to promote engineering to students in regional schools.