Soaking up the sun in Suffolk

Published 10:32 pm Monday, March 25, 2019

Some folks in Suffolk spotted an unusual caravan driving through the city on Monday.

In front was an ordinary passenger car, and in back was a white van. But it was the vehicle in the middle that attracted the most attention.

The star of the show was a solar-powered vehicle constructed by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Solar Electric Vehicle Team. Thirteen members of the team are currently on a trip up and down the flat roads of the East Coast, testing and training in preparation for an upcoming race the team will participate in next year.

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The vehicle that made an appearance in Suffolk Monday was raced in the 2017 American Solar Challenge, a race that took place between Nebraska and Oregon. The team hopes to compete again in 2020 and, while they don’t know where the location will be, they do know it will be mostly flat roads like the ones they’re driving on this trip.

“We want to place a lot better than we did,” said Caroline Jordan, the leader of the team.

The current trip is being used to test and troubleshoot new ideas, teach new members and get the team used to the logistics of driving in a three-car caravan, Jordan said.

The team had some mechanical trouble on Monday and pulled off Carolina Road into the Saratoga neighborhood near downtown. They parked on the street near Faith Temple Apostolic Church and set out caution cones. Two members of the group used bright orange flags to wave by passing cars, whose occupants looked on in amazement.

The Flux vehicle is what’s known as semi-monocoque, which Jordan said means that most of the vehicle is made of composite materials. Only the cage surrounding the driver’s seat and a few other components are metal, she said.

“All of our power comes from the sun,” she said. “We can charge from the sun in the morning and evening, and we’re charging while we’re driving, but also using.”

Because the solar cells are “not super-efficient,” Jordan said, a big part of the team’s job is to work on the aerodynamics of the vehicle to reduce drag.

But that doesn’t mean the vehicle isn’t street-legal. It even sports an inspection sticker and license plate issued by the commonwealth of Massachusetts.