The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project (UMNSVP) team placed first in the Multi-Occupant class at the 2022 American Solar Challenge (ASC). Held every other year, the competition sees collegiate teams race solar-powered cars over a 1000 to 2000 mile course across North America. Set up to mimic real world driving conditions such as city streets and highways, varying weather conditions, inclines and slopes, and traffic and road safety rules, the routes are designed to give teams the opportunity to demonstrate what their cars are capable of when put through the stresses of real world driving.
The student-led University team has built 14 cars over more than three decades, and have been competing in the American Solar Challenge since 1993. Having placed second in both, Single-Occupant and Multi-Occupant classes seven times in the past, coming in at the top of the scoreboard at the 2022 challenge has been particularly sweet. The UMNSVP team drove the car, named Freya, along the Oregon Trail National Historic Trail from Independence, Missouri to Twin Falls, Idaho, an eight day route that covered more than 1400 miles split into 4 stages. The preamble to the race were four days of Scrutineering (a series of static and dynamic inspections) that began on July 1, followed by the Formula Sun Grand Prix (FSGP) 2022 that began on July 5, culminating in the ASC 2022 that commenced on July 9 and ended on July 16, making for 16 days of solar car festivities.
Needless to say, the win has been thrilling for the UMNSVP team, and members Amber Zierden (Director of Engineering and mechanical engineering student), Ivana Truong (Director of Operations and biochemistry student), and Professor David Orser (ECE faculty and advisor to the team) shared their excitement with us.
Amber: As soon as we crossed the finish line, we knew we were winners. The way the scoring equation works, there was just no way that our competitors could rank above us. In that moment, I mostly felt relief. Our team has worked so hard to be at the top of the podium for so long, and there was a lot of pressure early on in the race when we realized that we really had a chance at this thing. Upon winning, all that pressure dissipated. As things started to sink in, I began to feel immense pride and gratitude. The response that we got from team alumni upon our victory really filled me up. It was truly through all of the work of alumni that this was possible: they designed Freya, spent thousands of hours building her, and committed even more time after they graduated to help the next generation carry on their work. I was incredibly proud and grateful to have been part of the race crew that carried the torch for them. This win was for the entire team. Past, present, and future.
Ivana: I would really echo Amber’s sentiments. I knew that we would win at the finish line because of the way scoring is set up, but it was the response after the win that surprised and made me so grateful. It was heartwarming to see the outpouring of congratulations from UMN faculty, sponsors, and most importantly alumni. It takes so much work and support to build and race solar cars and I’m proud that we could bring this win home for everyone who has been a part of the team and everyone who has been cheering us on.
American Solar Challenge
Multi-Occupant Vehicle class scores with UMNSVP at the top of the scoreboard
Amber: In racing and building solar cars, there are always challenges. Fortunately, our team has grown very accustomed to this fact, and we are incredible problem solvers. There’s a team mindset that whenever a problem arises, you take a look at what steps can be taken to move forward, and then you do what you can. By staying level headed and approaching things logically, we almost always arrive at a solution or a compromise.
The pandemic definitely had a larger impact on the early design cycle of Freya, but it also was a factor in recent months. One example is obtaining our new battery cells. Due to shortages caused by the pandemic, it was much harder to obtain the Li-ion cells that we use. Not to mention they were much more expensive and took longer to ship. Another challenge caused by the pandemic is the availability of sponsors to help. The pandemic obviously affected everyone, and sponsors have had a lot less disposable time and resources to support us with.
Ivana: As a general statement, there have been so many challenges on the path to race. But even when key sponsors have to step back, or in the face of seemingly insurmountable engineering challenges, our team always puts in the work and finds a solution. We do the research, contact experts, try to find every possible way forward and we make it happen. It’s incredible to be part of a team that has that amount of perseverance and it’s one of my favorite things about SVP.
Amber: One of the most memorable moments during the race was when we crested “the big hill” after Lander, Wyoming. This hill is about 20 miles of climb, although not continuous, with some very significant grades. We had a catastrophic failure on a mountain pass on race last year, so hills are always a little daunting. We believed (and more so knew), that if we could climb this hill, we could finish the race. And if we could finish the race, we could win the race. Although our climb of “the big hill” was far from flawless (we had a brief stint of pushing the car and one minor breakdown), we did it! We had been thinking about that hill for months — once the route was released we were able to look at elevation maps and we knew it would be a large obstacle for our car — and it was very gratifying to finally overcome it.
Amber: This win requires the biggest shoutout to all of the alumni who helped make it happen. There are too many to name, but without their passion and dedication, this success would not have been possible. The entire race crew also deserves a shoutout. The camaraderie, support, and team chemistry is unmatched. The race is the type of experience that you will remember for a lifetime, and there is no group of people that I would rather share those memories with.
Amber: We’re looking to use all of the momentum gained from race to jump right into the manufacturing cycle for car 15. It’s our aim to race this car at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (BWSC) in Australia in October 2023, and there is a lot of work to be done. Something that greatly contributed to our success this year was how much we were able to test-drive Freya prior to leaving for race. We were able to work out tons of kinks and solve issues before they had the opportunity to become larger challenges on race. This effort allowed us to race the most reliable Freya possible. It’s our goal to be able to achieve this same level of reliability with the next car. In order to do this, we need to finish the car with ample time to test-drive it before we ship it to Australia. Something that we like to emphasize on our team is that “reliability wins”. Without a reliable car and a reliable race crew, winning becomes a lot less feasible. This really shone through on this year’s race, and it is something that we will continue to carry forward as we set our sights on BWSC ‘23.
Ivana: Being able to see and race against cars from across the US and Canada also drives us to make car 15 our best car yet. Throughout the race we tried to learn as much as we could not only from the race itself, but also from other teams and their cars. The competition at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge will be even tougher and we’re putting our one hundred percent into preparing for it!
Professor David Orser: Over the last seven years as advisor for the team, I’ve seen them grow. Obviously they grew in technical and engineering ways; they are students after all. The more impressive feat however, is their growth in leadership and mentorship. Over this time the team has developed closer ties with the SVP Advisory Board, built a UMNSVP Alumni Association, recruited technical mentors from industry, and developed an undergraduate peer mentoring program. Together these connections have improved teamwork and the “institutional memory” of the UMNSVP, directly contributing to improved reliability and consistency in execution.
Our advisory board is made up of a group of industry professionals, professors, and university administrators. They meet with the team leadership a few times a year. I remember a team member saying, “Going to the Advisory Board meeting was like running into a bunch of old friends that I didn’t know I had.”
A little backstory on building Freya during COVID-19: In 2020, the team was just beginning to build Freya, when suddenly the world was turned upside down due to the pandemic. The entire campus was closed, and the team shop became inaccessible. No one on the team was allowed to be on campus to work on any part of the Solar Vehicle Project. After consulting with faculty, advisors, and the dean's office, the team took it on themselves to develop a set of COVID protocols. These protocols specified in detail how many people could be in a space, the contact tracing, and PPE required for the team to continue to operate. After these protocols were reviewed, the team was allowed to operate under the same limitations as faculty-run graduate student research labs. The team worked in small groups to continue to make progress on Freya. It still took over a year, longer than a typical build, to finish the car. They finished just in time to race in ASC 2021. However, due to an unfortunate human error we slipped to second place. This year in ASC 2022 the team executed a perfect race taking first place!
It is a reminder that the University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project is not only an opportunity to hone technical and creative problem solving skills but also a chance to exercise teamwork, project management, and metacognitive skills all of which are critical to success beyond the classroom.
For us at the University and in the College of Science and Engineering, we are extremely proud of team UMNSVP's hard work, innovative spirit, and determination to overcome the challenges of the past years, qualities that have helped them earn their ASC 2022 win. Orser points to the excellent opportunities that present themselves when students engage in a group such as the UMNSVP. And the members of the team have those skills in abundance. Their futures are full of promise, and when they leave the University one final time as graduates, we are certain we will hear exciting updates from them on the turns in their careers and lives.
Learn more about the American Solar Challenge
Learn about the UMNSVP team Read CSE's coverage of the team's win