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On a thundery October day last year, Zachary Wong was sitting in SOPHIE VI, a solar-powered vehicle he helped engineer and build, as it zipped across the Australian Outback.
It was the third day of a 3,000-kilometre race across some of the country’s most challenging terrain and each team had to use a vehicle powered only by the sun. Zachary, an assistant engineer at CLP, was not in the driving seat but he was the one controlling SOPHIE VI’s speed.
SOPHIE VI is a sixth-generation solar electric vehicle developed by the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE), which was participating for the third time in the biennial World Solar Challenge that attracts teams from tertiary institutions around the world.
Zachary, 25, was the only behind-the-scenes team member apart from teachers in the IVE teams at all three events. His job was to manage speed and power consumption, maintain the electrical system, and devise the best real-time strategy.
“While traditional racing places more emphasis on the driver’s skills and the car’s design, a key determining factor in the World Solar Challenge is energy efficiency,” Zachary explains. “Your position depends in part on battery consumption. This makes strategy and experience all the more important. You also need to consider weather, distance, lane conditions, and a whole lot of other data so that you can tell the driver how fast he should drive.”
Zachary sat beside the driver or at times in a control car behind to provide advice and strategy throughout the race. In the evenings, he worked against the clock to finish the daily analysis before bedtime at midnight, usually in a camp in the middle of the desert in extreme weather conditions.
“The weather was particularly severe and wet on the third day of the six-day race,” Zachary recalls. “We had to reach a checkpoint by the end of each racing day to avoid being disqualified,” he says. “On one of the sections that day, a team was in front of us and if we had not been able to overtake it, we would have lost. If I had made a wrong decision, we would not have reached the checkpoint and all the work of our 50-strong team over the previous two years would have been wasted.”
He was under intense pressure, but at that critical moment, a teammate patted Zachary on the shoulder and told him: “We believe in you.” That demonstration of team spirit gave Zachary confidence. He told the driver to speed up and overtake the team and the move proved decisive, improving the team’s position and helping them win a historic fourth place finish in the Cruiser Class of the contest.
When he is not racing across the Australian Outback, Zachary embraces a spirit of endeavour in his working and personal life. Academic success eluded him as a youngster, leaving him feeling lost, until a physics teacher inspired in him an interest in electricity.
He decided to pursue a career in the electricity industry. “After graduating from secondary school, I enrolled in the IVE's Higher Diploma in Electrical Engineering,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be selected for the solar car team in my freshman year. As part of my preparation for the challenge, I read many reference books which, by a happy coincidence, led to better academic results too.”
Zachary later joined CLP as a technician trainee on the Power Systems team. He was nominated by CLP’s Power Academy to take part in Hong Kong Qualifications Framework 2017 Award Scheme for Learning Experiences. The $30,000 he was awarded subsidised his race across Australia.
Zachary now plans to study for a master’s degree as the next step to his goal to become a qualified engineer. He hopes his story will encourage students to never give up on their dreams.
“Whether you are studying or developing a solar-powered car, the road is long,” he says. “Never give up hope because there is always a way forward if you believe in yourself and dare to choose. Keep working hard and follow your dreams.”