Driving The Future: Hands On With UNSW’s Sunswift Solar Car

Students from UNSW have, for a couple of decades, been developing and refining an extremely specialised solar-powered racing car, made to compete in the long-distance World Solar Challenge. Sunswift’s eVe solar car is the fifth incarnation of the solar racer to come out of the UNSW skunkworks since 1996 and, a year ahead of the 2015 Challenge, the team has their sights set on breaking a completely different record.

The Upcoming Record Attempt

The record that the Sunswift team from the University of New South Wales is tackling is for the highest average speed from a standing start over a distance of 500km for an electric car under 500kg, previously set in 1988. They’re tackling the attempt down at a track at the Australian Automotive Research Centre in Geelong, Victoria next week, and they’re supremely confident of smashing the current 73km/h top spot, and by a significant margin. They’re not even using the car’s 6m2 solar array for extra power — this particular challenge is all on a single battery charge.

The record is an official FIA one, overseen by motorsport’s number one governing body, and it’s serious enough that they’re using professional racing drivers. And, in addition to the Sunswift team’s plethora of existing records, it’s one that should go a long way towards proving the eVe is a viable prototype of a vehicle that could, one day, be road registered and driven by the general public to work and the shops and back every day. The hard work of the team means that getting there is only a matter of incremental refinement.

Project director Hayden Smith, a third-year software engineering student at UNSW, is confident that the car will perform and will be able to reliably and definitively beat the existing record, and said that it’s only one step on a clear roadmap for the future of the solar car. Within one more iteration, and including some relatively minor tweaks to meet regulations, Sunswift wants the eVe to meet Australian road registration requirements. To do so, it needs headlights, a brand new interior, and a few other small changes that the 60-strong UNSW team is already working on.

Before that happens, the eVe will first tackle the FIA 500km speed-over-distance record, as well as next year’s biennal World Solar Challenge. I got a chance to take the car for a spin around a test track at the Sydney Dragway in Eastern Creek, to see what it’s like to drive, and how road- and driver-friendly it is in its current form.

Driving The Sunswift eVe

Driving the eVe is a different, but not completely dissimilar experience to driving a standard road car. There’s a steering wheel, and a brake pedal — and any driver should be grateful for those small mercies. Acceleration and regenerative braking is controlled with two finger-sized paddles on the wheel, and a series of buttons — one of which is mysteriously unlabeled — control various driving aspects. (I later found out during driving that the unlabeled button completely resets the acceleration and regen braking, in case of a glitch.)

Getting in the eVe is the initial challenge — the carbon fibre bucket seat is as thin as possible for weight saving (the entire car barely tips the scales at 300kg), so you can’t rest your weight on it as you slide into position. The driving position is low-slung and slightly reclined, and the detachable steering wheel is pushed close up against the driver’s chest. The single floor pedal — mechanical brakes, a backup method for slowing down in case the regenerative braking — which uses the in-wheel electric motors to slow the car and feed electricity back into the drive battery — isn’t working as much as you need to slow down quickly.

Once you’re in the seat, strapped into the five-point racing harness, you’re ready to go. There’s no start button, no key to turn — you disengage the mechanical handbrake on the car’s centre tunnel (which in the eVe sits on a high-techpainted stepped wooden block), tap the PRECH button on the steering wheel, and pull back on the right steering wheel paddle. The eVe whirs to life — the motors struggle at first, but quickly enough you’re up to driving speed and the vehicle moves along relatively quietly.

Braking quickly is an interesting experience in the Sunswift eVe prototype, purely because of the positioning of the brake pedal. If you’re any taller than around 5’4″, your feet will rest against the carbon fibre firewall at the front of the cabin — which is an interesting issue considering the pedal itself is four or five inches ahead of the firewall, and sits almost in the centre of the car. One of the eVe drivers, serving as an instructor for my impromptu test drive, tells me that it’s easiest to cross your right leg on top of your left, and brake by feel whenever regen isn’t enough.

Once you’re up and running, nestled in the eVe’s bucket seat, driving the car is a fantastically raw and simple and basic experience. It’s quite fun — there’s no power steering, no over-assistance on the brakes, and relatively straightforward and linear electric power. With a bit of refinement, I really can see a car (vaguely) like this on Australian roads.

For now, though, the Sunswift eVe is an extremely specialised racing car, designed to take on and dominate its class in the World Solar Challenge. The team at UNSW has done an amazing job and has produced a solar-powered, electric-driven car that is a fascinating prototype of what might, one day in the next couple of years, become a glimpse of the future of the Australian road car.

Good luck to the UNSW Sunswift team for their upcoming record attempt next week! We’ll let you know as soon as there’s a result.

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