The University of Kansas Solar Car club lost its West Campus headquarters. The club said in a news release it’s coming to an uncertain future.
In September, the mechanical engineering department offered strict stipulations to Solar Car in order to compete in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. The stipulations withdrew space allocation and liability insurance support provided by the University as of July 31.
Alex Ottinger, Solar Car operation director, said the club found itself in a tough situation after its adviser, Thomas Deagostino, left KU.
“They kind of threatened us by saying we need to reach some stipulations in order to compete,” Ottinger said.
Lisa Friis, mechanical engineering department chair, cited safety concerns when asked why the department did not approve Solar Car’s participation in the formula initially. Friis said in an email to the Open Kansan that the stipulations are “designed to help ensure safety and appropriate oversight of the team.”
While the stipulations include terms regarding safety training and professional supervision, they also effectively withdraw space allocation and liability insurance support from KU by the end of July.
The stipulations include the following (A full document showing the stipulations is attached):
· Solar Car “will not be supported by the mechanical engineering department or the School of Engineering through space allocation or insurance coverage.”
· Solar Car must find a licensed professional engineer to oversee the electrical system development.
· Solar Car must have an adviser to supervise the mechanical engineering side of the project.
· Solar Car must undergo EHS Power Hand Tools and Electrical Safety training.
· Solar Car would be removed from its facility in West Campus after July 31.
Repercussions of the new stipulation and uncertainty:
Davis Nguyen, a Solar Car director, said he estimated additional expenses of around $14,000 due to the stipulation to rent a new warehouse, buy liability insurance and cover racing expenses. However, he said the consequences are not only financial.
“Let’s assume we find insurance, we find space, again, that’s going to be a huge sinkhole,” Nguyen said.
KU withdrawing support may affect Solar Car’s recruitment as the club comprises upperclassmen who will be graduating soon, Nguyen said. The club will need an additional 30 members to build a new car and maintain operations next year.
Without the mechanical engineering department’s approval, Solar Car won’t be able to join races, Nguyen said.
The mechanical engineering department must sign a team agreement form in order for Solar Car to join races, Nguyen said.
“If they don’t give us insurance, in a way, they’re not loving us,” Nguyen said. “They’re not going to sign the team agreement.”
The stipulation did not mention whether the department would sign team agreements for future races.
Solar Car may no longer receive funding from the School of Engineering, although the stipulation did not discuss future funding from the school, Nguyen said.
Friis did not comment on whether the department will sign the forms permitting Solar Car to race in future formulas or if the School of Engineering will provide future funding.
“Resources are limited,” Friis said in the email. “Students who want to be active and earn professional skills to complement their engineering education have several other student organizations.”
Michael Panethiere, an engineering professor who was an adviser for Solar Car, said in a text message obtained by the Open Kansan that he will no longer support the group.
The mechanical engineering department “is not going to support the solar car anymore,” Panethiere said. “Anything in the future will not be sanctioned by KU.”
About the club and team members’ feelings:
Club members worked hard to build the car but were met by disappointment from KU, Ottinger said.
Nguyen, who has been in the club since 2019, said the club has a total of 30 members and was formed in 2017.
“It’s been very exciting,” Nguyen said. “There’s a lot to do – a lot of potential.”
The Solar Car club ran late on finishing the car, but the team finished the car while the formula race was ongoing and raced in one lap, Ottinger said.
“I pulled an all-nighter the night of last day,” Ottinger said. “I was doing so much stuff that I couldn’t fall asleep.”
Ottinger is currently transitioning into an operations director position for the club.
“Walking into a director position, I feel betrayed from KU,” Ottinger said.