Poly engineers aim to set solar-powered speed record — with a freshman in driver’s seat

Lacey Davis, the Cal Poly freshman chosen to pilot PROVE Lab’s experimental solar-powered vehicle.
Lacey Davis, the Cal Poly freshman chosen to pilot PROVE Lab’s experimental solar-powered vehicle.

What Cal Poly aerospace engineering freshman Lacey Davis lacks in size, she more than makes up for with courage. Those two things, small stature and bravery, are what earned Davis the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to pilot a solar-powered vehicle that her team hopes will break the world land-speed record in June.

The Salinas native explained how she was selected for the job.

“In order to be aerodynamic, you’ve got to be small in the car,” Davis said. “(Project manager) Will (Sutton) said they needed someone who was 5’6”. I’m 5’3” and also willing to do some dangerous things.”

How dangerous?

“Ever since I was a little kid, someone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I always said astronaut,” she said. “I’d do the thing where you build your spacecraft out of cardboard boxes and Crayola markers.”

In June, Davis will go from cardboard and crayons to carbon fiber and solar panels as she attempts to drive the Cal Poly Prototype Vehicles Laboratory’s (PROVE) experimental vehicle at 65 mph for 1 mile, breaking the previously held record of 56 mph set by Kenjiro Shinozuka in Okinawa, Japan, in 2014.

The announcement of Davis’ selection coincided with a new fundraising appeal, as the team seeks to finish paying for the vehicle construction as well as securing the Mojave Desert racing venue and an observer from the Guinness Book of World Records.

Sutton, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student from Rohnert Park, said the team had an April fundraising goal of $20,000. By Monday, the team had met that goal and revised it to $30,000. As the vehicle nears completion, Sutton praised his team, which he estimates has poured a thousand work hours into the project so far.

“(They’re) in here day and night, gluing foam blocks together and laying up composites. We’ve got a guy who basically lives up at the machine shop making molds for us,” Sutton said. “This is a really huge effort.”

Davis said she devotes much of her time to the PROVE outreach program. “I go to middle schools and I mentor an after-school program that focuses on different engineering design aspects and how to solve problems,” she said.

Davis said she’s helping middle-schoolers build a miniature version of PROVE’s solar-powered vehicle and has been especially excited to see young girls take an interest in engineering.

“That was definitely something that I thought about when I said I want to be the driver,” she said. “Because I want more women to be involved in this club and other engineering clubs. I’m really hoping that we can get more female engineers involved in projects like this, because I think it’s super important.”

Though all eyes are on Mojave this June, Sutton said the team is already planning for what comes next.

“We’re looking at doing a 1,000-mile electric supercar,” he said. “So think of something that looks nicer than a Tesla (electric car) but can go farther than 300 miles. It’s the cure for range anxiety.”

Sutton said he believes solar technology is the future for electric-powered vehicles.

“We’d love to build this vehicle to really showcase what you can do with solar tech,” he said.“Think about what could happen when that technology is being used by companies that have the capital to build more than one impressive solar vehicle.”

For Davis, though, it’s all about the drive in June and the opportunity it presented her.

“This project is amazing. Coming in here as a freshman, I was not expecting to be this involved. I’m beyond honored,” she said.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

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