The University of Michigan Solar Car team and one of its creations.
For the hundreds of thousands who will flock to the Motor City this weekend for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), there will be more than flashy new cars on display. Students from across the country are heading to the Auto Show, giving viewers a sneak peek of the automotive industry’s future.
Hosted in Detroit, the annual event is the largest car show of its kind in North America. Now in its 106th year, the assembly-line-meets-red-carpet event gives car manufacturers from across the world the opportunity to show off their models for the new year, as well as prototypes with cutting-edge technology not yet available on car lots.
Eric Hausman, a member of the University of Michigan’s Solar Car team, will be heading to the Auto Show for the third year in a row.
“I’ve been going since my freshman year,” Hausman said, now in his junior year at Michigan. “Each time we go, we see more support from both sponsors and visitors to the Auto Show.”
The Michigan Solar Car team will be showing three vehicles at this year’s show, including the car that earned the team third place at the 2011 World Solar Challenge, a biannual race where teams travel 1,800 miles through the Australia’s outback in a solar-powered vehicle designed by students.
“We have a team of about 100 students who work on our cars, including our core 20-person race crew,” said Hausman, who has worked hundreds of hours a week on the cars over the summer. “The workload from the Solar Car team can be like having a full-time job.”
Matt Birt, a senior at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., echoed Hausman’s sentiments. Birt, the leader of Kettering’s SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge team, will also be going with his team to the Detroit’s Cobo Center for the Auto Show.
“There’s no sleep with these projects,” Birt said. “It goes from hours in the garage to hours at competition, and then it’s on to designing the car for next year.”
For the students who spend the year preparing these clean-energy cars for competition, the Auto Show gives them a chance to show off their work to not only the casual car buff, but also industry leaders. On Monday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank toured the NAIAS set, along with other officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of course, the Auto Show also brings in thousands of automotive business leaders, looking for the future of vehicle technology — which for many means energy-efficient, alternatively fueled cars.
“After studying engineering, the ‘magic’ behind shiny, attractive cars just become a matter of nuts and bolts,” Birt said. “What’s really exciting to a lot of us younger engineers isn’t the luxury car, but instead cars that are designed intelligently.”
Hausman agreed. “When people first see our car, they’re surprised it’s not a boat,” Hausman said, referring to the flat, aerodynamic design of Michigan’s solar car. “But they’re always interested — we get offers from people who want to buy one of our cars every year.”
This year, the team from Michigan will be displaying one of their cars with the top removed, meaning for the first time ever, viewers will be able to see the technology behind the futuristic solar vehicle.
“From the outside, you can’t really see the system of the car,” Hausman said. “You can’t even really see the wheels.”
“Once we remove the top,” Hausman added, “people get a much better sense of what’s going on inside.”
The emphasis on the inside of the car, compared to the outer bells and whistles, is perhaps the largest distinction between older designers and the new generation of engineers.
“In the past, there was a lot of focus on luxury seating or paintjobs,” Birt said. “But I think the last few Auto Shows prove that there’s a lot of interest in the more technical side, like fuel economy numbers and plug-in electric hybrids.”
For Birt, the changes in automotive demand offers an exciting glimpse into the future.
“The auto industry has certainly become a leaner and meaner industry,” Birt said. “But while we’re getting more competitive, we’re also becoming more globalized in our designing.”
Birt, who’s worked on car designs with students from Florida to Germany, hopes this global view of the automotive industry will increase collaboration between engineers.
“We have a lot of opportunity for collaboration these days,” Birt said. “And that’s really something to get excited about.”
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