Radar is a meteorology tool that relays information about storms, pressure systems, and more. It shows a map overlaid with bright and telling colors; dark green signals light rain, yellow moderate rain, and red heavy rain.
At 6:30 AM, when Head Strategist Alan Li and Weatherman Austin McDowell check their radar, they see a red splotch—there’s a serious storm right on top of the team’s location—and a California-sized mass of clouds is fast approaching.
As members of the General Crew, they wonder what the Array Crew, which is responsible for charging Aurum via solar array, are thinking given the weather conditions.
The race crew wakes up in waves. First to wake up is the Array Crew at 6:00 AM, a group of six people who ready Aurum for Start of Day charge at seven. They are responsible for “pointing”—positioning the array at the sun in order to maximize energy intake. Second is the General Crew at 6:30 AM, the members of the race crew who are neither drivers nor Array Crew members. They help Array while pointing. At 7:00 AM, the last group awakens: the drivers.
This morning, General and Array interact in the rain, looking at the storms and assessing the merits and demerits of charging. They hear thunder. A message pops up on the team’s communications app regarding the possibility of charging this morning: “Are we pointing?”
Crew Chief Perry Benson has to decide whether or not the team will charge Aurum. As Crew Chief, he is responsible for the safety of the car and crew. The general consensus is that Aurum doesn’t need to charge. It would be an unnecessary risk. To charge in such weather would mean working with and exposing circuitry to rain. The team would also run the risk of having hail or heavy winds damage the array. And when the array points instead of lying in its flat position on top of the car, it makes itself vulnerable to buffeting by strong winds. Charging also wouldn’t be worth the time spent, because last night, Aurum topped off the battery pack (charged fully) and because right now, it’s cloudy and rainy; Aurum is unlikely to gain much charge in such conditions, anyway. Perry notes that the team instead shifts its focus onto getting the car ready and as close to the start line as possible.
Aurum starts off driving at a moderately slow pace, heading into clouds and rain. The Strategy team sees more radiation in reality than they had expected, so they decide to have the solar car speed up little by little before it at last pulls into checkpoint at Ulysses S. Grant National Historical Site in St. Louis, Missouri.
When Aurum heads out again, it drives into scattered clouds and sun-chases until it becomes consistently cloudy. “Sun-chasing” is a strategy that involves driving slower in more sun in order to obtain more energy and faster in less sun in order to get out of the clouds as fast as possible, because the car gains little energy then.
As the University of Michigan drives down the eastern side of Missouri at a speed of around 45 miles per hour, approaching an abrupt turn west, the California-sized cloud mass looms closer and radiation keeps dropping.
Right before the team reaches the corner where the road turns west, Race Electrical Engineer Michael Toennies turns to show Alan the radar, and it shows something even worse than a red storm—a pink storm; there’s thunder and lightning in that cloud. And it’s heading straight for Aurum. They have to do something.
The team is on the edge of the storm. Having run simulations using IBM’s weather model, Strategy thinks that if Aurum increases its speed, the team can dodge this threatening storm.
When Aurum hits the turn, it speeds up to 65 miles per hour and drives west at that speed, trying to put as much distance between itself and the severe weather before the storm hits the route. While making the turn, Alan describes looking to the left and seeing nothing but clouds. Only to the right could he see “real sky,” he says. As Michigan drives on under real sky, less fortunate teams remain stuck in the storm’s grasp, which puts Michigan at a great advantage; Michigan is able to drive on without endangering Aurum and while leaving all other teams behind to struggle and slow down, piling more minutes onto their overall elapsed times while unable to get much power. It’s the ultimate strategic situation.
Engineering Director and Aurum driver Clayton Dailey credits the University of Michigan’s great success in the ASC to this crucial moment: “Mostly thanks to our weather models and Weather vehicle, we knew where the storm was and how fast we had to go to dodge the storm. This is the reason we were able to win by so much.”
Twenty minutes later, with the storm behind it, the team begins looking for an End of Day location to stop and charge. From the Chase vehicle, Strategy sends a range of possible locations for Weather and Scout to assess. Weather, Scout, and Media head out to scout potential locations.
Suddenly, on the radar, two more storms appear out of nowhere. The range of locations Strategy sent is covered by a torrential downpour, so Weather and Scout make the decision to go slightly backwards and find a different End of Day location.
Cell service is bad, so communication proves difficult, and Business Director Sarah Zoellick, who drives the Media vehicle, does not hear of the location change in time. She drives exactly five minutes past the new End of Day location and directly into “an out-of-nowhere,” “pitch-black” storm with harsh winds and heavily streaming rain. “It was the kind of thing where cars pull off onto the side of the highway because it’s too much,” Sarah recounts. “The visibility was bad and road conditions were unsafe even for heavy, full-sized cars. If Aurum had gone to the original location, the caravan probably would have had to pull off onto the side of the road.” The team had made a good call when choosing to change the End of Day location.
The Weather vehicle finds a location and the team pulls over onto the side of the road. It is raining lightly and the location is not optimal for charging. Team members pull out their phones, searching for better possible locations. Operations Director Jonathan (Jon) Cha and Operations Division member Jesse Velleu drive the Scout vehicle, and they head out to search again. They come across a tiny church just down the road, and the rest of the team follows.
The main caravan, the solar car, and the team’s semi take up half the road. Once in the church parking lot, Perry decides they shouldn’t stay here and should move Aurum into the trailer; this is also not a good charging location. A good charging location is very open so that there’s no potential shading of the array and so that when the sun rises or sets at a low angle, nothing blocks the trajectory of light to the array. The church lot is enclosed on three sides, with trees blocking the path of the sun. It would be fine as an End of Day location, because it is so cloudy that Aurum won’t charge much, anyway. But the team takes tomorrow’s Start of Day charge into consideration, too; there’s a chance the weather could be better tomorrow morning, and it would pay to take full advantage of it.
Scout heads out again to look for a location, driving straight into a downpour. “We couldn’t see ten feet in front of us,” Jon recalls. “We told them, ‘Aurum, do not go past this point—it’s dangerous.’” Eventually, Jon and Jesse double back and come across a highway overpass beside a cliff, where they can see a river underneath. It’s back down the race route a ways from the team’s current location, but on the opposite side of the river is a location that looks ideal: a parking lot on the water’s edge. It fits the criteria for a prime charging location, and as a bonus, sun reflection off the water would mean additional power. The pair drives around the rest of the small Missouri town of Van Buren (pop. 800), but find no better place. A big parking lot is full, so it isn’t usable. A baseball diamond is in use, and therefore also not usable. Aurum eventually settles in at the riverside location, right on the water, where it actually manages to charge because the clouds have let up a bit.
Throughout the entire day, weather tested the University of Michigan at every turn—costing it charge, nearly delaying it like it did the other teams, hindering communication, rendering the End of Day location search more difficult than it had to be—and at every turn, the team passed each test.