Ford Increases Investment in University of Michigan Solar Car Team, Talent Pipeline

Dr. Ken Washington (second from right), Ford vice president of research and advanced engineering; and Raj Nair (third from right), executive vice president of product development and chief technical officer; examine Aurum, the University of Michigan solar car team's latest vehicle at a June 24 event at Ford's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford announced it will be increasing its financial support of the program to $25,000 annually.

Weeks before the University of Michigan’s solar car team shoots for a sixth consecutive national championship, Ford announced it will significantly increase its investment in the program.

At a Friday, June 24 event at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan, company executives announced Ford will be increasing its annual financial contribution to the team to $25,000, an increase from $5,000.

The automaker has been working with several of the school’s programs for the past decade, with representatives acting as mentors and also providing the teams access to the company’s lab facilities for testing.

Alliances with “top-flight” universities such as Michigan are an ever-increasing part of the automaker’s strategy, said Ford Executive Vice President of Product Development and Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair. The alliance also furthers research in areas such as battery and electric technology and prepares students for their careers, which could one day even see them working at the company.

“We’re lucky enough to have one of the top engineering schools in the nation in our backyard in Ann Arbor,” said Nair, who was wearing a blue arm sling bearing the school’s well-known block “M.” “We’ve had such a good experience working with the university on many different projects, but with these type of teams, there’s a lot to be gained with these students’ interaction with Ford and looking toward a career with Ford.”

The collaboration has greatly exceeded the goals set in 2006, according to George Halow, Ford technology planning and strategy manager, who serves as executive champion of Michigan student teams.

Job seekers who have been part of one of the engineering teams assisted by Ford stand out when they are looking to enter the workforce, Halow added. 

“I can tell without even looking at a resume whether somebody has done most of their coursework in the classroom versus somebody who’s been on one of these teams,” he said. “The maturity level and the ability to acclimate to a corporate environment – it’s night and day difference.”

The solar car team is just one facet of a multi-dimensional relationship between the school and the company, which also includes research in areas such as autonomy, light-weighting and chassis.

“Basically every dimension of the technologies that are required to continue to build high-quality and greensafe smart vehicles,” Ken Washington, Ford vice president of research and advanced engineering, said. “And, more recently, to add the ability to be a leader in the future of mobility as we look to do things like connected car and autonomous vehicles and alternative modes of mobility.”

University of Michigan Dean of Engineering David Munson called Ford the school’s most important industry partner, adding its support is “invaluable.”

“Ford has made a notable impact on the team and on the university as a whole,” he said. 

‘Legacy of success’

Regarded as the most successful solar team in North America, Michigan has won five consecutive national championships – eight overall – and one international championship, as well as five top-three world finishes.

“The team has provided immense positive exposure for the university,” Munson said. “These talented students are as focused as any of our student-athletes on campus.”

The student-led team has members in several areas of study, including engineering, arts, business and science. It had approximately 65 members this past academic year.

The program designs and builds new cars, which can sometimes cost in excess of $1.2 million, every two years.

“Our main goal is to design, build and race the world’s fastest solar cars. Everything is focused on that one singular goal,” team captain Shihaab Punia said. “We have a legacy of success that has been very consistent.”

Punia said the team has “a rough idea” where the additional funding will be spent, adding it will allow the team to purchase materials such as silicon and battery cells from suppliers and manufacturers. “Having a significant amount of cash from Ford allows us to go buy those things,” he said. “Materials for the next car will be a high priority.”

Michigan’s solar car team was founded in 1989. Its first championship-winning car, Sunrunner, is on display at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

Its current car, Aurum, was on display at the recent June event, which was held in advance of the team’s latest practice run for the national race. 

The 600-pound car, which reaches speeds of 65 to 70 mph, features a sleek, aerodynamic body and is described as “the ultimate electric vehicle.”

“(It’s) one of the fastest cars we’ve ever built,” Punia said. “We spent a lot of time making sure the car was as aerodynamic as possible. … (It’s) the single-greatest component of what we do aside from solar power itself.”

Aurum features 6 square meters of solar panels. Its speed depends on the amount of sunlight available to the car as well as wind speeds. It can, however, travel as far as about 300 miles without sunlight.

The American Solar Car Challenge begins July 30 in Brecksville, Ohio. The race course includes stops in our national parks system before concluding in South Dakota in early August.  The crew that embarked on a practice race June 27 will follow the same route.

“Go fast. Go smooth. Go Blue,” Munson added.  

The University of Michigan Solar Car Team and Ford mentors surround Aurum, the team's entry into the American Solar Car Challenge, which begins July 30.
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