6. Rob Wills explains his perspective

Rob Wills is chairman of Formula Hybrid’s electrical rules committee. Wills grew up in Melbourne, Australia and went to Melbourne University where he studied electrical engineering. He did a stint in Antarctica as an instrumentation engineer then came to the United States to work at a government laboratory known as Cold Regions Research and Engineering in Lyme, NH near Dartmouth. Today Wills is chief technical officer for CitizenRe, a San Diego-based energy company that rents solar panels on a longterm basis.

“All through grad school I’d been putting solar panels on people’s roofs to make some extra money and I ended up doing it professionally,” Wills remarks. “I’ve been doing that for thirty years.”

He also does quite a bit of additional consulting work and has helped design a wind turbine and helped write the most recent national electrical code standards. For nineteen years, from the late eighties through the opening years of the new century, Wills ran the American Tour de Sol competition.

The Tour de Sol was modelled on a Swiss version and was a long-distance contest for purpose-built solar-powered vehicles that attracted as many as fifty competitors. Wills’ deep involvement in the solar contest was triggered by an encounter with Doug Fraser at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering one day in 1988.

“Doug was the instigator of the whole thing,” Wills recalls. “I was walking down the corridor outside his office as a doctoral student at Dartmouth and Doug said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this guy Tim Warden from MIT racing solar cars in Switzerland?’ I said, ‘Wow! That sounds like a really neat thing.’ And Doug said, ‘What say we try and form a solar racing club?’

“I had been on the board of the solar energy society and as a graduate student I had been helping some of the locals in Vermont with solar panels on their roofs as a side business helping keep me alive. So I knew a fair amount about the fledgling solar industry as it was then about 1988 or ’89.”

Wills orchestrated designing and building a Tour de Sol racer. “We built a solar racer and competed with MIT and everyone in the Tour de Sol. In the Tour de Sol in Switzerland you were not allowed to charge your vehicle from the (power) grid. If you charged from the grid you were out of the event. The point was to go the length of Switzerland, from the bottom to the top, from Italy to Germany, and do it entirely on solar panel power.”

After competing in the Tour de Sol Wills responded to more encouragement from Fraser to create an American version of the event. “When we got back from Switzerland Doug said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have an event here?’” Wills recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’”

So Wills dedicated himself to the task with a key change from the Swiss regulations. “When we started the Tour de Sol here we said we would allow charging from the grid,” Wills said. “There would be a point penalty but you could continue in the competition.”

For a while the Tour de Sol thrived. Toyota came on as a sponsor and provided a prototype Prius as the pace car a few years before it was introduced to the market. But as time went on Wills found himself doubting that solar cars were the way forward and ultimately the government funding for the Tour de Sol was eliminated.

“After a couple of events we worked out that it was all very interesting but they’re not practical vehicles,” Wills says. “They also are pretty scary vehicles with bicycle wheels and lots of sealing wax and solar panels and very fancy batteries. But ultimately they weren’t leading to a practical outcome. But there was one wonderful ground-up car done by a high school here in New Hampshire that was incredible in terms of its performance. It had a purpose-built all carbon chassis and was very aerodynamic.”

As the Tour de Sol came to an end Doug Fraser was creating and launching Formula Hybrid and Fraser invited Wills to take charge of Formula Hybrid’s electrical rules committee. “When Doug started Formula Hybrid he asked me to help on the electrical side and I’ve been helping formulate rules and guiding the inspection crew,” Wills commented. “So far we’ve had safe events and we’re growing so we’re very happy with the way everything’s going.”

Wills described his philosophy regarding Formula Hybrid’s rules and regulations. “Safety always is item number one,” he emphasized. “The rules may seem a little Draconian to some people. We’ve brought the voltage limit down but we would certainly consider allowing a higher limit under appropriate conditions. One of the problems you face is that you have a very wide range of capability in the students. A lot of them are mechanical engineers who don’t know a whole lot about electrical engineering and some of them are electrical engineers who don’t know a lot about mechanical engineering.

“A good example of that is we have requirements for team-constructed electrical equipment that has spacing requirements that are slightly bigger than the standard industrial standards. The reason for that is when you make it on your own bench it might be that the assembly is not quite as neat as a machine made in a factory. On the other side we want to leave plenty of room for innovation, so the rules are actually in some ways pretty open for what people can do from a design perspective.”

Wills loves to look forward and is intrigued by what might comprise the ultimate Formula Hybrid car. “A really good question is where can this all lead to?” he asked. “Back in the Tour de Sol days there were always discussions on the rules committee about what was the ultimate car and the same thing is true with Formula Hybrid. When you look at the way things are going I believe that the development of very lightweight wheel motors would give four-wheel independent traction control. That’s probably where the most performance can be gained from a traction point of view. We haven’t seen that yet in a Formula Hybrid car but I’m looking forward to it.

“You can imagine getting to the point where the traction is fully in control and it would be up to the driver to judge how fast they can go into a corner without spinning out. But apart from that everything would be in control with absolutely optimal torque on every wheel. You would still have to have some skill at turning a steering wheel but basically you would put your foot on the throttle, push down, and you should have full traction with it. It won’t work if you have too many G’s in the corner but it’s an interesting concept. I guess you could get to the point where a computer could be analyzing road friction all the time and would guide you, knowing the track layout, how fast you could go into a corner.”

Wills also noted the pure performance of Formula Hybrid cars is quite impressive. He would like to see these characteristics better promoted. “These vehicles have pretty darned fast acceleration,” he observed. “They have a pretty good power-to-weight ratio. We don’t do a standing quarter mile because it would be too fast and too dangerous at the end. But I’d like to see us translate our acceleration results to both G’s and to an equivalent 0-60 mph time. That’s a metric that most people understand and they would be impressed to know that Formula Hybrid cars are competing with Porsches and cars of that type for times below four seconds. So I think it would liven things up a bit if we could transmit the equivalent 0-60 times live at the event.

“When the autocross or endurance test was laid out a couple of years ago someone tried to take a conventional vehicle around and they couldn’t get anywhere near the Formula Hybrid times. The low center of gravity, the amount of stick on the road and the acceleration out of the curves is so dramatic that a Formula Hybrid’s performance is very significant.”

In my next blog Wills looks forward to where Formula Hybrid is heading. He also looks at the broader picture of the hybrid or electric car market and what type of post-internal combustion technology is most likely to win the battle for consumers’ minds and wallets.


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