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Deep in the Australian outback on a warm October morning, 14 MIT students and alums climbed out of their sleeping bags at 6 a.m. to get ready for another day of hard driving, in convoy, down endless flat stretches of straight, hot, dusty roads. One car took the lead to create a buffer against other traffic, and a van brought up the rear to monitor the group’s progress.

In between these ordinary vehicles, a futuristic car built by a small student-run team made its way more than 3,000 kilometers, from Darwin to Adelaide, powered solely by the sun. Looking like something imported from a sci-fi fantasy, the low-slung single-seater was covered from stem to stern with shiny black photovoltaic panels–about 600 solar cells connected in six arrays. And inside, under a plastic bubble canopy reminiscent of a fighter jet, a driver tried to maintain an ideal speed calculated by the team in the chase vehicle on the basis of constantly updated estimates of how long the battery power would last. Despite the pressure–and temperatures as high as 110 °F–the drivers loved every minute of it.

“You have to hit yourself over the head every night and say, ‘I’m in the middle of Australia racing a solar car!’ ” says team member Maddie Hickman ‘11. “You can’t comprehend how you ended up there.” The team passed flocks of emus (and mobs of kangaroos en route to the race), and every night the deep, quiet darkness of the remote desert was lit by unfamiliar stars.

The members of the MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team (SEVT) had spent two years designing, building, and testing to earn the right to compete in the weeklong 2009 World Solar Challenge, the world’s longest race of solar vehicles. And on these isolated roads, their intimate familiarity with every detail of their car–named Eleanor, after one in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds–helped them make it to the finish line. More than half the teams did not.

The rules let teams drive only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But they could start charging the batteries earlier, so each team rose with the sun to set up the solar panels. “At 8 a.m., we’d jump in our cars and get off as fast as possible,” says Hickman. And at 5:00 p.m., they’d set up the arrays again to catch all the light they could before sundown.

The first day, everything went smoothly for the MIT team. But on day two, when they pulled over for a routine switch of drivers, Eleanor hit a rock. One of the special high-pressure tires immediately went flat. And as they started to change it, a lug nut jammed.

“We pulled off the entire hub–something we had never practiced,” says team member Chris Pentacoff ‘06, an iRobot engineer who was a driver for MIT in the 2003 and 2005 races. “But we had practiced taking everything apart, and we had spare parts of everything. We just swapped the hub and were back on the road in about 20 minutes.”

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Credit: Chris Pentacoff ’06
Video by Brittany Sauser and Chris Pentacoff

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