Sunseeker (solar vehicle)

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For the solar airplane, see Sunseeker I. For the motor yacht manufacturer, see Sunseeker.
Sunseeker (front) at a midday stop in Sunrayce 1995.

The Sunseeker is Western Michigan University's solar powered racecar. Each vehicle is designed, assembled and maintained by students. WMU competed in the 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999 GM Sunrayce, and in the 2001 and 2003 American Solar Challenge, and the 2005 and 2008 North American Solar Challenge.[1]

The mission of the WMU solar car team is to design and construct a solar-powered vehicle that promotes the academic excellence of the team members. The Sunseeker Project brings together students from all academic disciplines and gives them the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to a hands-on project utilizing teamwork to achieve a common goal. The culmination of the solar car project is a biennial cross-country intercollegiate solar car challenge. The team promotes the use of renewable alternative energy and the advancement of related technologies by educating the public through the presentation and demonstration of a solar powered vehicle.



In 1990, WMU's Sunseeker competed in the General Motors sponsored Sunrayce USA that ran from Orlando, Florida to Warren, Michigan. With over 1600 miles and 38 competitors, Sunseeker 77 finished in 8th place.[2]


In 1991, Sunseeker competed in two Arizona solar challenges. One of them was the Solar and Electric 500 at Phoenix International Speedway where Sunseeker received the honor of 5th place. Sunseeker placed an impressive 2nd place in the Arizona Governor's Cup Solar Challenge, a 2.5 mile Grand Prix course through the streets of Phoenix, Arizona.


In 1993, GM was joined by the DOE, National Renewable Energy Laboratories and EDS to sponsor the solar challenge. The Sunrayce ran from Dallas, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rain and clouds contributed to a disappointing 18th place for Sunseeker 93.[3]


The NREL, EDS, and GM together sponsored the 1995 Sunrayce. The route ran from the Indianapolis Speedway to Denver, Colorado. Sunseeker 95 took advantage of the excellent chassis from the previous race and built a new array, installed a new power train, refined the aerodynamics, and formed a new strategy. These changes allowed Sunseeker to place 8th in a competitive field of 36 cars.[4]


The 1997 Sunrayce ran from Indianapolis to Colorado Springs, Colorado with the DOE, EDS and General Motors as its sponsors. The team built an entirely new vehicle for 1997. Sunseeker 97 finished in 16th place finish.[5]


1999 brought about a whole new aerodynamic body design that was different from all previous Sunseeker designs. There was only one problem: rain. Nine of the ten race days from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida were plagued with overcast and rain. The rain damaged one of Sunseeker's two motors, which had to be taken apart and dried. On the last and only sunny day of the race, Sunseeker 454 passed more than 20 competitors and finished 3rd for the day, but still finished in 26th position overall.[6]


The first American Solar Challenge race in 2001 was sponsored by EDS, the DOE, and NREL. WMU hosted scrutineering where the solar cars are inspected for mechanical, electrical and safety requirements. Sunseeker 95 was modified with a new array panel and more efficient solar cells. The wheels were replaced with the carbon fiber wheels used on the 1999 car. A number of other modifications were made and the car was renamed Sunseeker 295. After a 2400 mile race from Chicago to Los Angeles down Route 66, it finished 5th in Stock Class and 23rd overall.[7]


For WMU's Centennial in 2003, the team reduced the 1999 car's length and width and constructed an all composite body and chassis of carbon fiber and honeycomb, designed a new rear suspension, built a high efficiency solar array, and installed the hub motors from the '99 car. Entered in the Open Class, again following Route 66, Sunseeker 03 captured 5th place in the race, sporting car number 786. It also won the Inspector's Award for best mechanical and electrical design, the Sportsmanship Award, the Most Improved Award, and EDS's Gold Award for Best Solar Car Design.[8]


For 2005, the race became the North American Solar Challenge as the route started in Austin, Texas and ran north to Winnipeg, Manitoba then west to Calgary, Alberta. It was the longest solar car race ever at 2500 miles (4000 km). Sunseeker 03 was given a new canopy, stronger rear suspension, improved aerodynamics and renamed Sunseeker 05. With no mechanical or electrical breakdowns, car number 786 crossed the finish line in 6th place and took home the Aesthetics Award for the prettiest car.[9]


The 2008 Sunseeker solar array with gallium arsenide (GaAs) multijunction cells

A radical change in driver seating for the 2008 solar challenge caused all teams to build totally new cars. Sunseeker 08 used the very efficient array from the previous car and was changed to a front wheel drive quasi three wheel vehicle since the two rear wheels were about a foot apart behind the cockpit bulge. However, the array blew off the car during qualifying and the car could not participate in the event. WMU team members joined other teams to assist during the race. At the award ceremony after the race, they received the Sportsmanship Award to a long round of applause.[10]


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