On the road with Sunsetters
First off, a little background about the race and the need for a team navigator. This year’s American Solar Challenge (ASC) is a race stretching more than 2000 miles with no signs or flags or anything to mark the official race route. It is not as simple as following Route 66 signs either because there are different versions of Route 66 and the race route follows the general path of the old route, not the exact roads. Each solar car team is responsible for following the official route and penalties are assessed for teams making wrong turns or getting lost. The biggest penalty does not come from ASC though, it comes from the fact that it is difficult and costly in terms of race time to recover from wrong turns when you are leading a 3 vehicle caravan with a speed of about 25 mph. Every time you miss an interstate exit or turn, it takes up valuable race time and battery energy to turn around, get back to the point where you left the route, and proceed through it again, going the correct way this time.
Each team is provided with 3 official ASC race route binders. These consist of directions in spreadsheet form (available from ASC’s website at www.formulasun.org) and also maps made with Microsoft Streets and Trips, which are supposed to show the important turns and provide some clarification on some of the directions. These books are quite long and obviously took a considerable amount of time to compile.
The role of the team navigator is basically to make sure that the solar car caravan does not miss any turns and inadvertently veer off of the official ASC race route. This may sound simple because of the slow speeds that the caravan travels at but it can get very tricky when going through large cities and rural back roads with no road signs or landmarks to help. The ASC directions themselves are sometimes so confusing that you just have to interpret them the best you can and hope all the other teams couldn’t understand them either. An example of this can be seen in the following excerpt from the ASC route book:
Exit I-40 @ Exit 124 “to Clarendon”
TURN RIGHT at Stop to follow S Frontage
TURN LEFT @ Stop to follow 70 S, crossover I-40
TURN RIGHT after crossover onto S Frontage: HARD RIGHT, almost a U-turn
The map included for this set of directions showed Exit 121 instead of 124 so that was of no help at all. We were heading west (in Texas) and exited to the right at exit 124, a standard interstate overpass. We were supposed to make a right turn at the top of the ramp to get onto the south frontage road. This is impossible to do so we interpreted the S as being a typo and followed the North frontage road. We encountered the University of Minnesota team during the confusion over which way to go and they ended up interpreting the mess in the same way that we did.
A day in the life of a solar car caravan navigator begins early in the morning along with the rest of the team (except the strategist who gets to sleep in). The navigator’s first responsibility is to keep the official ASC route book nearby and to set up a laptop and GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver so that when race start time rolls around each day, the lead van knows exactly where to lead the caravan. The GPS is a big help in navigating because it shows your position and direction on a map at all times. It can be used to estimate your distance from an upcoming turn and also the direction you are facing, which is handy because North Dakota State Fleet vehicles don’t come equipped with compasses. The GPS/computer duo is not always 100% accurate though so it doesn’t take all the fun out of navigating.
The navigator sits in the passenger seat of the lead van and communicates with the driver of the lead van so they can maneuver into the correct lanes to make up-coming turns. The navigator also communicates with whoever is in contact with the solar car driver on the radio. That person tells the solar car driver when and where they need to turn so that if the driver loses sight of the lead van, they can still stay on route and not miss any turns.
Another job of the navigator is to navigate the quickest possible route for the caravan when trailering the solar car. It is important to reach the destination as quickly as possible while the solar car is in the trailer so charging time can be maximized.