Can Anyone Beat This Solar-Car Dynasty?

Posted October 11, 2017 by Travis Pulver

Every year, a slew of top universities compete in a set of exhilarating races. These races demonstrate the very best in college automotive engineering, but the vehicles here don’t look or sound like your normal race cars. These races are the Formula Sun Grand Prix and American Solar Challenge, two competitions for teams of college students organized by the Innovators Educational Foundation. The Formula Sun Grand Prix is a closed course competition held each year that also serves as a qualifier for the American Solar Challenge held every other year. The American Solar Challenge is a spectacular marathon, a multi-day, 2,000-mile journey across the U.S., powered only by the Sun.

According to Gail Lueck, Executive Director of the Innovators Educational Foundation, at the last American Solar Challenge in 2016, "there were 20 teams that came out to the scrutineering for the events, but not all of them passed and not all of those that passed performed well enough in the track event to make it on the road.  As we say, it is a challenge to make it into the American Solar Challenge." In fact, just 13 of the solar cars qualified for the road race. Qualifying in itself is quite a feat. Simply building a solar car that can handle a 2000 mile race is not exactly an easy task. Both the road race and the Grand Prix put the cars through serious paces in their “scrutineering” sessions prior to the race to ensure they are ready for the grueling challenges on the road.

The American Solar Challenge is judged like the Tour de France biking race. There are 4 stages to the race, each receiving a stage time. Then the overall total time of all stages together provides the winner of the full race itself.

When we look at the results, we’d like to say there’s a dead-heat, or it’s too close to call, but in this challenge it’s not hard to see who the top team is. It is immediately clear from the past four American Solar Challenge races that one team is dominating solar car racing. That team is the University of Michigan.



For the past 4 races of the American Solar Challenge, the University of Michigan has come in first place. In fact, no other university’s team has even placed in the top 10 for all four years! The University of Minnesota, Principia College, and Polytechnique Montreal are the only other teams to even place for 3 of the 4 challenges.

Michigan's team usually doesn't compete in the off-years of the Formula Sun Grand Prix when the American Solar Challenge isn’t held.  This helps us see a bit more information into how some of the other university teams perform when the champion team is not around. 



Do some of these teams have the potential to over-take Michigan in next year's challenge? Possibly, but, Michigan's dominance at the American Solar Challenge is, to date, unrivaled.

So what is the secret to Michigan’s success? The resources they have at their disposal certainly play a role. Among the team’s sponsors, are Ford, General Motors, 3M, IMRA, Siemens, and many more. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have help from a company synonymous with racing, ROUSH Performance among your sponsors. But ultimately, it is the students who have to do everything from fundraising, to designing, building, testing, and finally racing the vehicles, and we cannot take away from what these students have achieved.

Michigan’s program is also one of the oldest Solar Car teams in the country. It was founded by a pair of students in 1989 who went on to win the first American Solar Challenge that year and moved on to place third in the 1990 World Solar Challenge. It also helps that Michigan caters to students interested in STEM through its STEM Academies Scholars Program (since 2008) to help attract incoming freshmen to the Solar Car Team.

So is Michigan’s hold on the top spot in solar car racing a given for 2018’s American Solar Challenge? History would say yes, but there are a number of other teams that are starting to demonstrate a real potential to de-throne the king. Some of these teams are quite young, such as the Appalachian State team that was founded in 2013, which has already seen some early success reaching 6th place in the 2016 Solar Challenge and rising up the ranks to 2nd in last year’s Formula Sun Grand Prix.

Other underdogs with a strong potential to claim the top spot in 2018 include the University of Minnesota, Iowa State, and Principia College. Each of these teams has had multiple top 5 finishes in the past 4 American Solar Challenge races.

To get a better understanding of where each university sits in the overall rankings of the solar car world, we’ve listed the total ICS badging points for each of the top teams from the past 4 competitions. ICS badge points provide a common way to evaluate awards from multiple competitions (at the international level points are 10,000 for a 1st place finish, 7,500 for a 2nd place, 5,000 for 3rd place, 2500 for 4th place and 1,000 for 5th through 10th place finishes).


University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, and Iowa State lead badging points for American Solar Challenge


If we were a betting group at ICS, it’s hard to go against the dominance of Michigan in the American Solar Challenge; however, depending on the odds, there are several other promising teams to consider. And who knows, there’s always the possibility that a completely new upstart could surprise everyone. New teams are always launching at different universities. Maybe next year it will be your university or alma mater’s team to surprise everyone!

One thing about student competitions that we know for sure is that the teams are always changing. Students graduate, freshmen come in, new teams register, and the dynamics may be completely different from one year to the next. We do not doubt that the 2018 American Solar Challenge will be an incredible race to see, and are looking forward to learning more about all the teams preparing to de-throne the Michigan solar-car dynasty.

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