When Lacey Davis started at Cal Poly this fall, she didn’t expect to be asked to drive the fastest solar-powered vehicle in existence. But standing at 5 feet 3 inches, the aerospace engineering freshman was the perfect candidate to squeeze into a sleek, aerodynamic car set to break a world record.
Davis is a member of Cal Poly’s Prototype Vehicles (PROVE) Laboratory, a student-run organization designing what will be the fastest solar-powered car in the world. The project has been in the works for more than a year and is set to break the world record for the fastest solar-powered car without a battery in June. In early January, the club still hadn’t found a driver for the car and Davis said she was hesitant to pitch her candidacy at first.
“On the first meeting, my friend was like, ‘You should be the driver!’ And I was like, ‘No, they probably already have a driver, they’re not just going to have a first year be the driver,’” Davis said. “And then the first week in January they said, ‘We’re looking for a driver that’s shorter than 5 foot 6 that’s a daredevil, not afraid to take risks, and I was like, ‘Hey! That’s me!’”
Davis, originally from Salinas, California, knew she wanted to be an aerospace engineer since she toured NASA’s Ames Research Center as a junior in high school. She figured joining clubs and gaining experience for her resume was the best way to make that happen, but she had no idea she would play this big of a role in such a large project as a freshman.
“It’s quite an adrenaline rush,” Davis said. “I called my mom as soon as [they] said they’d let me be the driver and said, ‘Guess what? I’m going to be the driver of this solar car and it’s going to break a world record.’”
Davis will be the only passenger inside the vehicle, lying flat on her back to reduce drag. She’ll be driving on a straight mile-long track, so there won’t be much steering involved. Her main concern is getting the car to hit 70 miles per hour or above in order to break the standing record of 56.7 miles per hour. However, she won’t just be lying down pushing the pedal to the metal. The vehicle is so aerodynamic, she said, that hitting even a small bump in the road could generate lift.
“We have an anti-lift flap. I just have to know how to problem-solve in milliseconds,” she said.
There’s no way to practice for a test like this, so in the meantime, Davis works with PROVE Lab’s outreach program, introducing local middle school students to different engineering design processes and projects. Thomas Rohrbach, technical lead of the outreach program and aerospace engineering senior, said Lacey has served as a mentor to the students she teaches.Mechanical engineering senior Alex Power leads the team designing the suspension system. That system, he said, is what provides safety for the solar panels. Using a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine, Power cut into thick pieces of metal to make precisely the right shape and size parts for the suspension. The newly cut piece will allow the suspension to move up and down, thereby protecting the solar cells from the shock of an impact.
While it’s critical for the solar panels to remain safe, there’s one thing even more important to keep protected: the driver. Peter Pratt, a mechanical engineer senior and lead of the structures team, is in charge of the system designed to do just that.
Pratt points out the parts of the vehicle that he and his team have been working on in a wooden model sitting outside of the PROVE Lab workshop. The chassis, or internal structure of the car, will be made of carbon fiber, he said. The carbon fiber composites are four times stronger than steel, but they’re light enough that two people will be able to lift the car.
“As the car drives it hits bumps, and so that’s what we’re designing for. No matter the force that this takes, we’re designing for a thousand times what we expect, so that way anything that we come across, the chassis and the car are strong enough to take it,” Pratt said. “We’re going to take steel plates, running it through the carbon fiber and welding the roll bars to that.”
The internal structure of the car is first mocked up in a wooden model.
Sharing the wealth
Undertaking such a massive project wouldn’t be possible without a little outside help. In the last year, the students of PROVE Lab have received financial and technical support from numerous organizations. Some resources come in the form of donations from private and corporate sponsors; others in the form of expertise from the top dogs of the industry, like Tesla and Google.
Cal Poly students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the generosity of PROVE Lab supporters. Come January, students in low-performing Central Coast school districts will have access to after-school STEM education programs, thanks to a $65,000 grant from the American Honda Foundation. Students from PROVE Lab’s outreach team will be leading eighth graders in building their own miniature prototype solar vehicles. Aerospace engineering senior Thomas Rohrbach is the lead for technical coordination within the outreach team and in charge of creating lesson plans for the program.
“We’re hoping to put a lot of different components in front of them and have them come back to us and do what engineers do and justify their decisions,” Rohrbach said. “We’re not going to give them a kit. It’s gonna be, ‘Here’s three motor options. Tell me why you picked this one.’”
In it for the long haul
This project has been a long time coming. Doig first pitched the idea last year, and thus far, it looks like the car won’t be ready to break the world record until June. But until then, the team is working diligently toward making it happen — and keeping their achievements on record for future employers to take note of.
“Going into interviews for internships and whatnot, they’ll look over my resume, they skip over school, they skip over volunteer, they skip over everything and they’re like, ‘What are you doing for this club?’” Pratt said.
Doig also believes this will launch students into unprecedented places.
“The students are doing something that hardly any student anywhere gets the experience of— building a real, working vehicle that does something that no other vehicle in history has done before,” Doig said in his email. “So the students we have coming through PROVE now, we hope, are going to go on to do amazing things.”