Higher learning

The Audi Foundation supports the University of NSW with the donation of a new Audi A7 Sportback.

As part of its ongoing commitment to education, the Audi Foundation has donated an Audi A7 50 TDI quattro to the University of NSW Engineering Department, giving students the ultimate opportunity to literally pour over the internals of the brand’s best.

UNSW and Sunswift Racing

16 April, 2021

With education such an important pillar of the Audi Foundation, the request struck a chord at Audi HQ and the Audi Foundation

It was a set of headlights that first started the conversation. A set of Audi RS7 headlights to be exact, considered by the engineering students at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to be the ideal addition to the next generation ‘Sunswift’ solar car being developed by the team as part of its ongoing and very successful participation in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.

Professor of Practice at the UNSW Engineering faculty, Richard Hopkins, approached Audi Australia to see if the brand might be able to support the project with the aforementioned lights and the seed of a much larger idea and association was planted.

With education an important pillar of the Audi Foundation, Richard Hopkins’ request struck a chord at Audi HQ and the Audi Foundation and the idea was ultimately floated to support the UNSW Engineering faculty, but not with a set of headlights. Instead, Audi Australia offered to donate a whole car to the university to not only support the current UNSW Sunswift project and Institute but also for training purposes across the entire engineering faculty.

The car, an Audi A7 Sportback 50 TDI*, is one of several pre-production models procured from AUDI AG by the Audi Australia Aftersales department for training purposes. These are used by the technical department for training technicians in the very latest technology used by the company as well as seeing service in the brand’s extensive apprentice program.

“The request and the things they are doing with Sunswift and the Engineering faculty of the university [of NSW] aligned with Audi’s own direction,” says Jerome Figuiere, Aftersales Director at Audi Australia.

“We have a number of pre-production vehicles that are used in our own training facilities, so with Audi Australia’s education program which is run through the Audi Foundation, we felt that supporting the university’s request with a car would give them much greater scope as a training aid.” 

Professor of Practice, Richard Hopkins.

Home to some 15,000 students across all of the various engineering disciplines, UNSW is the top rated engineering university in Australia and the Sunswift solar project is the top engineering initiative within the school. The university’s Sunswift Solar Racing Team which has been competing in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge since 1996, was one of the draw cards when Hopkins was approached to join the faculty as Professor of Practice. 

With nearly 30 years experience working in Formula 1, Hopkins brings a unique perspective and experience to the university, having worked with the likes of the Brabham team, McLaren and ultimately running the Red Bull team for the better part of a decade.

But while the idea of a university-based solar racing team may seem far removed from the pressure-cooker of Formula 1, such is the sophistication of this next generation Sunswift prototype car and the sheer scope of what Hopkin’s sees as the future of Sunswift, that Formula 1 makes for the ideal background.

This is state-of-the-art design and engineering, working on real world outcomes in the search for viable alternate energy sources that will power vehicles in the future.

“We have a hugely talented group of 45 undergraduate students designing, manufacturing, assembling, testing and racing a solar electric car from scratch,” says Hopkins

“Sunswift was once a voluntary program but in 2020 UNSW made it a course in its own right which has created a much higher level of support, both internally within UNSW, and externally with our industry partners.”

This is serious business conducted at the very cutting edge of design, engineering and construction and the potential for even greater research and innovation – as if building a solar race car from scratch isn’t enough – is tremendous says Hopkins.

This is serious business conducted at the very cutting edge of design, engineering and construction and the potential for even greater research and innovation

"What we’re looking to do here is to create a centre for excellence that will create real solutions to real problems"

Richard Hopkins

For example, the new solar car being built by the team sees Australian company McConaghy working with the chassis design team as official composite partner – this is the firm responsible for building champion yachts Wild Oats XI and Black Jack as well as working on director James Cameron’s submarine, Deepsea Challenger, for his record-breaking attempt on the Mariana Trench. 

The machining work is being carried out by leading engineering business Sorenson Engingering, not only using the students’ drawings and designs, but with them actively assisting in the machining work – more  invaluable hands on experience.

“We’ve got a duty to the students to expose them to the best technology that exists and give them the opportunity to create technology that doesn’t exist,” says Hopkins. “These students are building the most advanced solar prototype vehicle in Australia, and possibly the world. It’s a great way of getting the message out there that we have this level of talent in this country.”

But this new solar car, to be be revealed in July – complete with Audi A7 headlights – is just the beginning according to Hopkins. The announcement of the Sunswift Institute will not only further the Sunswift project in terms of the prototype cars, but open up other opportunities for creating new businesses. 

“What we’re looking to do here is to create a centre for excellence that will create real solutions to real problems and also encourage our bright young minds to stay here in Australia rather than take off to places like Silicon Valley to work … give them something worth staying for and by extension investing in the country’s future,” says Hopkins. 

“Let’s create other businesses here that are attractive for our talents to work for. That’s not going to happen over night obviously, but ultimately we want to be building and inventing real life things, facing real life problems and have a reception desk that is like a triage and people can come in and say ‘we have this problem, we need you to fix this problem for us’.”

The 2019 Sunswift Solar car.
Render of the new Sunswift Solar car, complete with Audi headlights.

These plans remain in the future although in Term three this year, ‘Sunswift Technology’ will be introduced, which Hopkins says will be a more research driven endeavour.

“Sunswift Technology will be more an innovation arm of the racing with a more research and development focus,” he says.

“We’ll be looking more at autonomous technology, perhaps hydrogen and regenerative energy and all of those sorts of things. It will still feature undergraduates at the core but we’ll also get post graduates involved.”

As for the new solar car, it will have a busy schedule after being unveiled on July 1st. Although this year’s Bridgestone Solar Challenge has been cancelled due to the ongoing implications of COVID-19, the finished car will be featured at this year’s Bathurst 1000 in October where it will lap the most famous race track in the country. There are also plans to take it on the road – literally – to visit schools in rural centres to showcase just what is possible in terms of future mobility.

The Audi A7 though, will never see the open road, as it is taken apart and put back together again and again by students not only associated with the Sunswift project but from across the engineering faculty and other associated departments. 

“We will forget it’s a car and break it down into its various components,” says Hopkins.

Only the headlights from the A7 will see action in the new Sunswift car, the need to keep the solar vehicle to a total weight of around 400kg precluding the addition of other items such as the sports seats from the luxury grand tourer. But the rest of the car will go on to serve a new role as real world teaching aid, with every component and system from the user interfaces to the wiring looms scrutinised and studied. 

Certainly a very different life than that of most Audi A7 Sportbacks, but one that will certainly make an impression on the next generation of Australian engineers and its own unique contribution to the future of mobility.

*The Audi A7 Sportback is donated as a training and educational tool and cannot be registered or driven on Australian roads.

The new Sunswift solar car – complete with Audi A7 headlight lights – will be officially unveiled on July 1st 

(L to R) Richard Hopkins UNSW, Jerome Figuiere Audi Australia and Hayley Nissim, Audi Foundation.