Meanwhile, the teammates—future engineers, all—who’d cocked up cooking the first chassis so the shock mount pushed through and destroyed the entire chassis, necessitating a complete refabrication (oh yeah, that was what set all these monkeyshines into motion), and who’d had such very important top urgent immediate need for this replacement carbon fibre? Turns out they hadn’t finished cocking up: while we were on the road between Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor via Tulsa, they were out watching Star Wars instead of fixing the cracked chassis moulds, so now they still had to do that before they could use them to lay up the composites, which made them miss the curing oven time slot a corporation had donated. They had the nerve to show up seven hours late, whereupon Bizcorp Companyco Amalgamated Industries said something to the effect of “LOLnope”. So now the laid up chassis was room-temperature curing—very, very bad!—and so there was frantic phonecalling to try to find right-now availability of a suitably large curing oven. Ford came through on that one.
I don’t recall when in all of this I reinstalled the van’s radio and took back my Infinity deck, but I did. And guess what else I did: pissed away five figures’ worth of today’s dollars because I wasn’t paying attention. The ’99 race was the first one to allow other than lead-acid batteries; NiMH (nickel metal hydride) batteries were newly permitted. Being the University of Michigan, of course we would be running the newest and best technology. One of the battery companies sponsored (i.e., gave) us our custom-made NiMH batteries. Each was made of a series of cells joined by flat-woven stranded straps like this:
I don’t sturdily remember, but I think the car took six of the custom-made batteries, each with seven cells. Nominal cell voltage of 2v, nominal battery voltage of 14v, and nominal pack voltage of 84v. Each battery cost about $6,000 in 1998. Another company had sponsored (given) us a top-of-the-line battery charging and testing machine, which we built into the cleanroom at our shop space.
During the systems engineering phase of the project, we did an enormous amount of battery testing, which meant charging and discharging at a wide range of rates and temperatures. We built a box into which one of our batteries would very tightly fit. There was a fan at the bottom of the box to draw cooling air down past the cells, and it was all done to very close tolerances because that’s how the batteries would be installed in the car, and we needed to know how much airflow would be needed to keep the batteries below their critical temperature of 50°C (122°F).
So last thing at night, a battery was put into the forced ventillation box in the charging rig in the cleanroom and left to undergo a discharge at whatever rate we were testing, followed by a tapered-rate charge-up. Mostly this was my responsibility. Mostly it went fine, until the night it didn’t. The primary battery ventillator fan had been taken offline and its pilot light on the control panel had been disabled by one of the other engineers during a systems check earlier in the day. He should’ve put them back, but didn’t. I should’ve noticed, but didn’t.
And so in the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was an old bakelite Automatic Electric № 40—very loud and without provisions for any kind of “ringer off” or “do not disturb” mode:
So I woke up in a hurry. There had been an incident in the cleanroom: the battery had exceeded 50°C and begun venting gas violently—it sounded like rifle shots, according to aero/body engineers who were working in the adjacent machine shop. There was frantic drama, and a fire was averted. The expensive-but-free charging rig sustained serious heat damage, as did the stainless steel battery cell casings, and the $6,000 battery was wrecked. There was a hell of a hydroxide mess to clean up, and the university Hazmat team had to be called in with a special cleanup kit. So if you thought I was going to claim to be the only one on the team who didn’t mess up…no.
But we were the University of Michigan, so all we had to do was call money and daddy. The battery company sent us a replacement; the test-and-charge equipment company swooped in and swapped out the rig, and onward we forged. Minimal muss, finite fuss, and no budgetary badness.
What a great story, thanks for sharing! It can be a slightly disturbing sense of accomplishment when you stop a hare-brained scheme with a simple solution. Like, are you guys insane or I am completely misunderstanding this problem?
Glad you and the crew survived your driving while tired experience. I did it once. No longer twenty-two and sure it will be fine to push on, I pull over and have a kip.
Also, nice hat!
This is the kind of story that almost never gets told. Everyone loves to tell the “Lookie at how great we were when we did this amazing thing” story, but the “Zowee, but we had a lot to learn” stories usually go untold.
It is a belief of mine that during my lifetime there has been an overabundance of highly trained specialists and a shortage of smart, curious, self-taught guys with a lot of common sense. This is not just in engineering and manufacturing, but everywhere. The first group is necessary, of course, and important. But the second group brings something to the table that is not often-enough appreciated.
Well said. An excellent example of a self taught guy is Percy Spencer who only had an elementary school education. Wile working at Raytheon he made enormous improvements to magnetron tubes making them more efficient and easier to manufacture. All this was hugely important in WWII. He later invented the microwave oven. Pretty important contributions to society I say.
Another example is Frederick McKinley Jones, an African-American engineer and inventor in the early 20th century. He left school when he was teenager because he was very bored and didn’t like the strict structure at the school. He taught himself the mechanical engineering when working at various jobs and at the car repair garages.
Mr Jones was credited for developing the experimental snowmobile (with propeller attached to the rear like swamp boats), portable x-ray devices, improved refrigeration units for lorries and railroad cars, ticket dispensers for cinemas, improved sound track synchroniser, and so forth. He was largely responsible for the success of Thermo King and worked there until his death.
It is rare to find a Wolverine with enough self-awareness to publish a sentence like “We had too much money, too much luxury, way too much sense of entitlement, not enough hunger, not enough incentive, and we were busily getting experience just after we needed it.” Most UMich grads carry their hubris into the real world and just beg to be brought down a peg or two by the rest of us in the same field. Thank you for this very entertaining read.
Y’welcome and thanks!
My experience with these type of teams in college was that the leader was often hand picked by the dean because they were high potential and fair haired. Those with common sense and technical skills were brought on as “hired help” and treated as such. A prelude for future lessons in the workforce.
I’m sure you’re often right. This time, though, it was very democratic: those who wanted to try for the Project Manager position made their case to the team, who then voted.
Another great story .
I bet many here have good learning stories to share, I certainly do, I’m amazed I’m still alive .
I remember those solar cars, was disappointed they didn’t change things like I thought they would .
More please .
I am always fascinated about the different approaches of solving the engineering and mechanical problems, mostly thanks to my brother who has a strong knack of figuring out different approaches or solutions. He loves to talk about them with me. This article is just perfect for that and has lot of interesting detail!
I recalled the big news involving the solar car race challenge in the late 1990s, and I never knew that you were part of the UM team. It’s shame that the solar car race challenge hadn’t changed the world (yet).
“Yew cain’ jes’ stawp awf’n the road lack thet, wayvin’ thim ornge flaygs…they aspozeda be riyed flaygs, nawt ornge wuns!”
Being deaf, I appreciate the letter-for-letter transcription of accents, dialects, and likes, because it shows me clearly the regional pronouncations. Not to mention the accurate descriptions of sound that I can replicate in my mind like a person can read the sheet music and imagine the sound in the head. You have a gift for that, and I do hope to see more of that in the forthcoming articles! Thanks very much for that!
An enjoyable story, and fun to hear about the team’s efforts from the inside. I recall reading about this as it was happening, and I also recall seeing the car in person when it was exhibited at the Boston Museum of Science for quite a few years in the early oughts.
Daniel, I was worried that because you were going to be subbing for Paul for a few days, we (your loyal readers) would have to wait for further COALs from you – but here you are with several consecutive home runs!
Your statement that your team had too many resources handed to them too easily (“affluenza”) rings true – I recommend “Slide Rule”, Nevil Shute’s autobiography. “Nevil Shute” was Nevil Shute Norway’s pen name. Although an accomplished aeronautical engineer, he is best known for his novels, a few of which I consider outstanding.
The relevant part here is that young Shute was one of the engineers involved with the privately-built R100 airship, while a well-funded government team worked on the R101 in parallel. The R100 was successful (although the day of the dirigible was swiftly passing), but the greatly more expensive R101 was failure, crashing with the loss of all crew members.
This may be a simplification, as I haven’t read the book in about 35 years, and I’m not trying to be Ideology Boy here, as for most of my career I worked in telecom engineering at a public utility, and remain very proud of the work our team did under some significant constraints. (So in no way do I think that the issue is a public-private one, but rather that I think having constraints drives creativity and conscientious work – one is more likely to measure twice before cutting if one has a limited budget for wood.)
I’m impressed that your family came out to cheer you on – good on them, and good on you for leaving the project to be with your dad in his illness.
Given that solar cell efficiency is said to have increased greatly in recent years, I wonder whether solar cars are a bit closer to being viable.
In any case, please keep them coming!
I wasn’t on the teams, but had friends who were on the Mini Baja and Moonbuggy teams at Tennessee Tech during that time range. I can tell you they did not get support like you’re describing, though there were certainly gifts from automotives and suppliers in the region. I know most of those folks did have late nights but good times.
That’s a great history of what really happens. Love the twenty year old rationale for decisions.
Back in 1976 we built a steam car for the Australian government to deal with “oil crisis” .remember that.
After 2 years we delivered our composite chassis mid engine roadster with double acting compound piston engine. Only 2 batteries to worry about.
And I see your altered Valiant, there in the background!
Yes that’s the Val. Modded when I was 25 and knew a lot more….
I have a mid engined vw version of steam car now.
Daily driver ? Tesla 3 of course!
NZ-spec Valiant – photo taken during our year in Whangarei (2003/04).
What does the Hemi badge on the trunk signify? Surely not the 426 V8. Some sort of mod to the Slant Six?
Check out that aftermarket rear-window defroster – I was unsuccessful installing one similar in a 1970 Corolla.
That badge refers to the Aussie Hemi six, bigger than the slant six. 245 inches, 165/185hp in this iteration.
I’d forgotten about those aftermarket rear window demisters!
I just read the Wiki article on the Aussie Chrysler inline-6 “Hemi” – quite fascinating (given that I’m a bit of an engine nerd).
I’d always assumed that the Aussie Valiants used the Slant Six or a variation thereof.
They did, until the 1970 “VG” models when the Hemi-6 came in. It was only put in cars for Australia and New Zealand; six-cylinder Valiants and related cars built in Australia for export elsewhere (e.g., to South Africa) had the 225 Slant-6 right up through the end in 1981.
The adhesive in that type of aftermarket rear defogger softened when heated. Mistake! Learned the hard way.
Hey, what adhesive shall we use for our defroster grid comprising resistive elements that produce heat when an electric current is passed through them?
I know! Let’s use an adhesive that will get soft when heated!
The vw version of steamer
Hemi means Australia/ Nz 6 cylinder from VG on. In 215 , 245 and 265 ci.
Much faster than old 225 and engine was lighter.
Hemi was a close description of head shape.
I have some video from the TV news of the 1990 Sunrayce. That year it ran from Florida to Detroit and the next to last stop was in my hometown near Lansing.
The UofM car was featured prominently as they were both local and leading the race.
Yep, I think the UM team won that first Sunrayce in 1990.
Anyone who stops in the fast lane of an interstate highway clearly isn’t very intelligent .
Goes to show, it is a lot more fun to screw up with Other Peoples’ Money!!!!!
Regarding southern accents, I’m reluctant to throw stones, as I am always appalled when I hear a recording of my own Prairie Hoser voice. Never met a “g” at the end of a word I didn’t wanna drop, eh?
That said, I associate a southern accent with the fibre-optic folks in Georgia and the Carolinas – in my job there were regular phone calls back and forth between simple me and the resident geniuses at Corning, AFL, Alcatel, Draka, OFS, and so on. To me, a southern drawl is the voice of technical competence and authority.
Lots of southern-drawl competence portrayed in “For All Mankind”, a very good show centred round NASA in an alternate timeline.
Yes! Space geek that I (also) am, how could I forget the voices of mission control?
Thanks for the tip – I will check out “For All Mankind”! (Loved “From The Earth To The Moon”.)
Daniel, I finally watched the first episode of “For All Mankind” last night. Oh my oh my! It was written for me … just flipping brilliant.
All of the real history is firmly embedded in my memory banks, so to see this alternative history is absolutely fascinating to me.
Little things like “Senator Kennedy has cancelled his trip to Chappaquiddick!” – oh my, doesn’t history hinge on such things.
Thanks so much for the tip!
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read Daniel. Thanks for sharing! I really laughed at the rationalizing of the Chicago pizza detour on what was supposed to be a get there as quick as possible trip…