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Neil Martin

The world’s fastest electric vehicle over 1000km on a single charge is aiming for more glory when it competes in the prestigious Bridgestone World Solar Challenge next month.

UNSW Sydney’s Sunswift 7, a student-built solar-powered car, is attempting to claim the honours against teams from across the globe in an amazing race that covers over 3500km from Darwin to Adelaide.

Sunswift already holds a Guinness World Record after completing 1000km on a single charge in under 12 hours on December 2022.

Read more: EV record breakers! Sunswift 7 goes 1000km on a single charge in world’s best time

And in yet another technological breakthrough, the team will be using Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink system to livestream continuous footage from inside the car all the way back to UNSW Sydney as it races through the middle of the Outback.

The Sunswift car will be fitted with 5G transmission equipment from Optus and Cradlepoint, allied with cloud computing services from AWS, to send a live video feed via Starlink satellites to a big screen on UNSW campus — where students and staff will be able watch the action real-time from thousands of kilometres away.

Telemetry from the car will also be beamed back to a group of student engineers working as race control from special Spacecube modular buildings set up in the middle of campus.

Sunswift Racing Team Principal, Professor of Practice Richard Hopkins, was previously Head of Operations at the Red Bull F1 team (2007-2015) but likens this latest development to NASA’s space missions.

Sunswift 7

Sunswift 7 is the latest in a long line of successful solar-powered cars from UNSW since the first vehicle was produced in 1996. Photograph by Richard Freeman

“Effectively we are going to be broadcasting the race live from our car all the way back to Sydney using 5G mobile,” Prof. Hopkins said.

“We will have a race control team back on campus at the university checking all the telemetry and data from the car. It’s very much like NASA’s mission control where all the people in Houston are able to monitor what is happening when the rocket goes into space.

“This is about showcasing the technologies and showing that we can broadcast video from the middle of nowhere and livestream that back to a jumbo screen on campus for people to cheer us on.”

The Sunswift Racing team will hope to make it a perfect 10 at the WSC – but sadly it may be the final time they compete in the prestigious event.

Having taken part in the race nine times previously going all the way back to 1996, the student team will line up in Darwin on October 22 aiming to beat their rivals in the epic race to Adelaide.

Sunswift 7, the most recent design of the car, will feature in the Cruiser class at the WSC and must complete the three stages totalling 3600km, using only the power of the sun.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology

However, planning for Sunswift 8 is already underway and the team are keen to include cutting-edge hydrogen fuel cell technology – which would unfortunately rule them out of future World Solar Challenge races due to current regulations.

Prof. Hopkins hopes to engage in discussions in Darwin with event organisers and other teams to discuss whether the rules could be updated in future to ensure the race stays true to its ethos of helping to push the limits of technological innovation.

“The regulations for the WSC have basically been the same for the past 20 years. Innovation and technology have moved on so much in that same period of time, but these regulations have not been re-aligned in the same way,” he said.

“We need to be able to explore new technologies. For example, we are only able to use silicon solar cells, but there are plenty of other technologies, such as gallium arsenide, that we are not allowed to utilise.

“There are lots of different battery technologies emerging, as well as new motor technologies, in addition to what we are already planning for Sunswift 8 in terms of including hydrogen fuel cells.

“I think it would be great to have more freedom because the world has moved on and the WSC regulations maybe need to move with the times as well.”

Sunswift during world record attempt

Sunswift 7 posted superb efficiency ratings during the world record attempt. Photograph by Richard Freeman

Perhaps highlighting the point, this year’s WSC race will not feature Eindhoven University of Technology – dominant four-time winners in the Cruiser class – as they have chosen instead to focus on building a solar-powered off-road car.

Prof. Hopkins is adamant that UNSW students involved with the Sunswift project should be at the cutting-edge of automotive design and construction – and then be able to showcase that level of expertise on the world stage.

“If we choose to build Sunswift 8 to the current WSC regulations it would just be pretty much the same car, with the same technology, and the learning outcomes for the students would also be the same,” he said.

“With quite restrictive regulations there is only so much you can innovate. That’s why in Formula One if you took all the logos off the cars and made them the same colour you would not be able to tell them apart. Eventually you design and build to the maximum of the regulations.

“What disappoints me is that mainstream car companies at times are now using more advanced technologies than we are.

“We should be the ones ahead of the curve. Those companies should be looking at us and trying to understand what our amazing young inspirational students are doing.

Richard Hopkins and Sunswift 7

UNSW Professor of Practice Richard Hopkins talks with the Sunswift team during testing of the car at Sydney Motorsport Park. Photo: UNSW Sydney/Richard Freeman

“The UNSW Sunswift team can and do solve some really big automotive problems with fantastic solutions out of left-field, but if we are caged in and not allowed to explore those ideas then we won’t be relevant anymore.

“I’d like to be part of a conversation with all the teams and the WSC organisers to gauge what everyone thinks and discuss what might be possible in terms of amending the regulations, if that’s what the consensus agrees with.

“I don’t profess to have all the answers myself, but if I had the chance to sit down with other likeminded people, I think we definitely could come up with a really nice set of updated regulations.”

Friendly discussions might be the order of the day, but as soon as the flag goes down on October 22 Sunswift will be competing hard for the victory.

“Our goal has been to engineer the best solar electric car we possibly can. And if we've done it to the highest level then the net result should be winning the World Solar Challenge – which is what we are going there to do,” Prof. Hopkins said.

“Eindhoven won’t be taking part, which is a shame because you always want to test yourself against the best and they have been really strong rivals in the past. But I think a lot of other universities have upped their game and the competition is going to be fierce.”