Conquering challenges: Team PrISUm’s two-year journey culminates in eight-day race


Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily

Members of Team PrISUm work on the solar car Phaeton in their garage July 8 in Sweeney Hall.

Kelby Wingert

In August 2012, a group of students began planning for an event that wouldn’t happen until July 2014. It was just weeks after the Team PrISUm solar car Hyperion placed second in the American Solar Challenge cross country road race that the team began thinking about the next ASC race.

“As people came back to school and people started coming to meetings again, we knew we were building another car already,” said Logan Scott, recent ISU graduate in computer engineering and the project director for the team.

The team spent the next two years planning, designing and building its next solar car, which would later be named Phaeton after the son of the Greek sun god Helios. During the last months of the project, all of the table surfaces in the team’s garage in Sweeney Hall were covered in a mixture of wrenches, screws, McDonald’s coffee cups and pop cans.

Scott said somewhere between 50 to 100 students work on the project throughout the entire process.

“A lot of people come and go,” Scott said. At the end, they have somewhere around 20 people for the race.

The planning of the solar car begins with the team trying to complete an entire mechanical and electrical design.

“We use a lot of CAD software to lay out the schematics and to lay out the [circuit] boards,” Scott said.

The team uses a CAD software called Autodesk Inventor to lay out the geometry of the design and to create models for the parts of the car. It also uses software to check how aerodynamic the body is.

“It’s sort of just trying to sprint as fast as we can getting the body and the frame designed,” Scott said. “But sometimes we have to go back and modify things to make it work.”

The car’s frame is made out of a carbon fiber and aluminum. Other materials were used as well, such as a foam play mat for the seat and a plastic sandwich box to enclose one of the circuit boards.

Team members spent most of the summer — up until they left July 12 for Austin, Texas — putting the car together in their garage in Sweeney Hall.

“In the end, when you’re finally putting it together, then you kind of have to put your special touch to get it to work and actually put together,” Scott said.

The building process wasn’t completely finished before they left, but they were able to complete the car’s mechanical and electrical programming in Texas.

To name the solar cars, Team PrISUm uses an online polling system among the team members to vote on potential names. Scott said that recently, there have been two themes behind the names of the cars.

“Either names that end in -ON, like Hyperion or Anthelion,” Scott said, naming the previous two cars. “That’s one reason Phaeton was chosen.”

The second theme behind the names is naming the cars after Greek gods or Roman mythos.

The team has had technical challenges, organizational challenges and money challenges. Scott even joked about “personal suffering challenges.”

“We designed our steering rack upside down so when you steered left, the car would turn right,” Scott said. That problem has since been fixed.

Team PrISUm races a new solar car every other year.

“We’ve been able to build a new car for each ASC and have it qualify each year,” said team treasurer Rachel Hoke, junior in electrical engineering. “So it’s kind of a little bit of pressure to have that done again.”

To qualify for the road race, the car must pass a series of inspections and tests called scrutineering. Once the car passes scrutineering, each driver must complete a minimum number of laps during the Formula Sun Grand Prix to qualify for the road race. This is to ensure the safety of the cars and drivers.

Team PrISUm had some problems in the beginning with passing the scrutineering, but they eventually passed everything on the fourth day, which was the end of the first day of the grand prix. Instead of having three days to qualify, the team only had two. On July 19, the team had all four drivers and the car qualify for the road race through the third day of grand prix.

During the road race, which goes from Austin, Texas, to Minneapolis, Minn., the car will have a rotation of four drivers: ISU students Ryan Hupp, Dakota Morgan, Daniel Goldman and Todd Wegter.

Hupp, a senior in aerospace engineering, drove Hyperion at the 2013 Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin. This year, driving Phaeton, will be his first road race.

Despite the race taking place in late July every other year, the solar cars do not have air conditioning. It can get pretty hot in the cars.

“You get used to it after a while,” Hupp said. “You just kind of focus on the driving.”

The cars are required to have ventilation for the drivers. Team PrISUm also gives its drivers two liters of water and a cooling fan, Scott said.

“It’s sort of like being in a hot car for a long period of time,” Scott said.

The drivers can only drive a maximum of six hours a day and the total drive time each day is eight hours. Scott said they will switch drivers somewhere around the six-hour mark and the other driver will continue for the last two hours of the driving day.

The rest of the team travels in a fleet of three vehicles. The team rented two one-ton pickup trucks and a 15 passenger van from the university. One of the trucks is a lead vehicle, which will alert the driver of the solar car of any issues like potholes.

Directly behind the solar car is what is called the chase car. In accordance with road licensing rules, the chase car must always be directly behind the solar car, because the solar car is categorized as an “experimental vehicle.”

The third vehicle will drive somewhere behind the chase car. All four vehicles communicate using two-way radios.

At the end of racing each day, the team must impound its car batteries. Hoke said this is because sometimes it’s possible to charge the batteries off of an outlet instead of using the solar array to charge with the sun. The impounding is “just to make sure each team has the same charging time for the beginning and the end of the day,” she said.

The race will take each team through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The race will come through Ames on July 26 for a checkpoint stop. Scott said the cars will probably arrive at the stop in the Hilton Coliseum parking lot around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.

Phaeton is the 12th solar car the club has made since its first in 1989, which was named PrISUm and is the team’s namesake.