Original Horsepower to Solar Power

A couple of recent events here in Nebraska made me think about how far we’ve come in terms of transportation (and where we might go from here)!  In the early part of our nation’s history, Nebraska served as a gateway to the West.   Hundreds of thousands of pioneers, miners and trappers began the trek to settle the west by following the Platte River across the state.  The Oregon, California and Mormon Trails all passed through Nebraska, and the ruts made by those early travelers as they creaked along in oxen-drawn wagons are still visible in many places.

The settlers craved word from home, and one “thread that tied East to West” was the Pony Express mail service which carried letters from Missouri to California.  The riders covered nearly 2,000 miles in 10 days, and they, too, crossed Nebraska following the Platte River.  The ride was a dangerous one, and ads for riders read as follows:  “Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”  Even though a lasting part of Western lore (Buffalo Bill Cody was even a rider), the Express only operated for a period of 18 months, from April of 1860 to October of 1861.  Each year, members of the National Pony Express Association recreate the Pony Express with a commemorative re-ride.  This year, my family and I made the early morning trip to see the mail hand-off at Fort Kearny:

Pony Express Re-rider leaving Ft. Kearny
Fort Kearny

The second event is going on right now, the American Solar Challenge.  This event is a biennial competition in which college teams design, build and drive solar-powered cars across more than 1700 miles of open road.  This endurance event started at Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha and loosely follows the Oregon Trail from Nebraska to Oregon.  Heavy fog was blamed for a slow start and the lead cars didn’t make it to the first stop at Stuhr Museum in Grand Island until around noon.

University of Michigan solar car
University of Michigan pit crew

The cars have no air conditioning, which must be miserable in the July heat.  They also have no power steering and, while they can go faster, they were traveling at a speed of approximately 45 mph.  Each car has something in the neighborhood of $200,000 worth of solar panels installed.  These panels need to be cooled to increase efficiency, and this is the Western Sydney University team using distilled water to bring down the temperatures of the panels.

These modes of transportation from the past and possibly the future are certainly interesting, but for now I will happily stick with the horsepower I have sitting in my garage.  By the way, if you are anywhere near Kearney, Nebraska, this weekend, the town will be crawling with classic horsepower for Cruise Night 2018.  Hope to see you there!

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