Nineteen U-M students have been in Australia since August, getting ready for this month’s World Solar Challenge. Though student-run teams have been racing solar-powered cars since 1990, the 1,800-mile run from Darwin to Adelaide has a new twist this year: regulations for the top “challenger” class call for four-wheeled vehicles only. The U-M team has produced only three-wheeled vehicles since 2003, and Ian Sullivan, interim business director for the U-M solar team, says the change made the design process “logistically much harder.”

The team rose to the task with a car that Sullivan says is “just as efficient, if not more efficient,” than the three-wheeler that competed in 2011. The team has won the North American Solar Challenge seven times, and has finished in the top three in the biennial global race five times. Facing strong competition from Japanese, Dutch, and Bulgarian teams, it has yet to win in Australia. Sullivan says the team’s cars have consistently improved on lightness, efficiency, and dynamics, bolstering public awareness of solar technology along the way. “It’s building something that actually matters, it’s building something that wins, and it’s building something that represents your school,” he says.