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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Will This Spaceship-Like Car Win the World Solar Challenge?

The Stanford team that built the half-million dollar vehicle, which tops out at around 70 mph, hopes so.

  • August 23, 2011

Students at Stanford University have built a remarkable solar car, an entrant in the 11th World Solar Challenge in Australia. The car, whose giant, flat, reflective surface makes it resemble part of a satellite, is called the Xenith, and the team hopes that it will bring back the trophy from a challenge that the U.S. hasn’t won since 1989.

A fun slideshow by CNET’s James Martin gives a good look at the car from all angles. It’s basically a giant, flat platform just brimming with solar panels, 26 of them. The students have so carefully designed the thing, trying to make it lean and aerodynamic, that they concern themselves with minutiae such as whether the driver’s head might cast a slight shadow on the panels. The whole car weighs just 375 pounds, and its chassis of carbon fiber, titanium, and aluminum measures just four inches thick.

Some outlets had reported that the Xenith was the “fastest solar car ever.” That’s something we can’t know yet for sure–Standford hopes this is the case, and would love to bring back a trophy to prove it after the World Solar Challenge, which will be held between Darwin and Adelaide, Australia, between the 16th and 23rd of October. The Stanford team is actually one of the scrappier entrants, having built a car worth about a half million dollars; other teams will likely enter cars costing well over a million. There will be about 30 competitors in total, hailing from 20 countries.

Still, the Xenith stands a chance. It’s already been performing well. It can hit a top speed of around 70 miles per hour, says one of the students involved, in this video. More typically, it cruises around 60. Still, says Nathan Hall-Snyder, the team captain, the group of mostly undergraduates has built a car that can “go highway speeds on the power it takes to run a toaster.”

On Monday night, the team hoisted the car into a trailer box they built last week, and strapped down practically all their tools into a shipping container. That container will sail out from San Francisco bay later this week, holding the hopes of the first American win at the World Solar Challenge in 24 years.

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