Midnight Sun builds on winning past

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Midnight Sun vehicle
Real-world experience working on a Waterloo vehicle team helped an undergraduate student land a plum co-op job at Tesla.

Members of the company’s hiring committee were so impressed with Devon Copeland’s work with Waterloo’s Midnight Sun Solar Car that they asked him to make a presentation about his involvement with the team.

“They were really interested because a lot of the engineering challenges Tesla faces are very similar to what we’ve faced with Waterloo’s solar car,” explains Copeland, a fourth-year Waterloo mechatronics engineering student. “We’re both working on an electric car and we even both use the same cells in our battery packs.”

Copeland was the mechanical lead for the team’s 2018 Midnight Sun Solar Car that competed in the American Solar Challenge (ASC) last July.

Of the 42 teams registered, only 13 completed the grueling 2,700 km race across Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Midnight Sun was the first Canadian entry to finish the ASC with a cruiser-class vehicle and took third place overall.

The team’s award-winning car was its second entry in the cruiser class, which includes driver and passenger seating. After designing and building challenger-class – single seat –  vehicles, members shifted gears in 2014 to build their first cruiser.

In the two years between each ASC, most teams build on their existing car, hopefully improving its performance from one challenge to the next. Moving to the cruiser class forced Midnight Sun to build a new car from scratch.

Learning from defeat

Midnight Sun built its first cruiser for the 2016 ASC. After two years of design work, manufacturing, and assembling the car, it didn’t qualify for the race.

“We were devastated,” says Copeland. “It didn’t qualify for the race. It didn’t drive a single lap at the competition. It didn’t work out the way we wanted or planned.”

After the 2016 competition, the team was deflated – but members also saw an opportunity to use what they had learned and start over.

“I thought what other time in my life will I have the opportunity to design and build an entire car from scratch,” says Copeland. “It’s not everyday that you get to do this.”

Starting fresh

For its next car, the team made another attempt in the cruiser class, starting with a completely new design. Using valuable lessons from the first cruiser, they were determined to qualify for and finish the 2018 ASC.

“Our goal wasn’t to win the competition,” says Copeland. “We wanted a reliable and safe car that could complete the ASC. We didn’t think we’d be able to compete with the top-tier teams because we didn’t have the experience or the money.”

The top teams at the ASC often have budgets well over $1 million (USD), which they use to redesign their existing cars.

In comparison, Midnight Sun worked with a budget of $150,000 (CAN) to design and build a totally new vehicle. Members had to be scrappy – sourcing affordable materials, manufacturing parts themselves, and limiting the number of spare parts they purchased.

Despite intense timelines and low funds, Midnight Sun was not only a top competitor at the ASC, but it won the perseverance award.

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