Today marked our final drive of the North American continent! After 65 days of the trip, of which only 37 were spent driving (the rest occupied with press events, conferences and a few days of delay) we were finally in Panama, the bridge between the Americas! As we had a 290 mile leg to reach Panama City, we set off at 10am from the Best Western hotel in David and rejoined the Pan-American Highway.
It all felt so easy; driving along, smooth roads, fantastic weather, little traffic, and the power of the SRZero electric power train silently propelling us along. It was a false sense of security however, because unbeknown to us, a hidden bump was lying in the road ahead, and at 60mph I was blissfully unaware of it…
BOOF! Not the sound that you are exactly thrilled to hear when driving a prototype electric car, and even less desired is the display going blank and the car losing all its power. So in reaction to this, I pulled the car over onto the side of the road, but as there was no hard shoulder it was actually still on the road; not the safest state of affairs! So, first and foremost we sent Andy a few hundred metres up the road with a high visibility jacket and a walkie talkie to help slow the traffic down and radio us when there was any traffic coming. We were lucky in the fact that aside from a few maniac trucks trying to set land speed records, the traffic was light and the vehicles generally slowed down as they approached. In addition, despite being in the middle of the jungle 30km away from any population, it was daylight, sunny, and not raining…not all bad then! With this in mind, we set about taking apart the car to determine the cause of the problem.
Our first thought was that the BOOF sound must have come from the car grounding out as we went over the bump, and that this may have caused some damage to the motors or battery mounting. Upon further inspection however, the rear of the car including all the high voltage components were completely normal, and there was no indication that this was the cause of the failure. Next we thought there could be a problem with the low voltage circuit thereby causing the inboard computer to power down.
When checking the power to the computer, we did indeed find no power being delivered, but upon checking the low voltage batteries and other low voltage systems e.g. the hazard lights, they were working fine. So what could be the problem?? The next thing we considered was our crash sensor could have tripped. Way back when we were building the car, we wanted to ensure that if there was a crash and the safety of the lethal high voltage circuit had a chance of being compromised, that the entire car would be safely shut down. To do this, we installed a crash sensor which is essentially a switch which under normal circumstances is closed, but under a situation of high deceleration i.e. in a crash, it would open and shut the car down.
This is exactly what had happened as going over the bump had caused a violent vertical acceleration. Several seconds later, we had the sensor reset, and the car booted up completely normally…problem solved! Then ensued a rapid rebuild of the car, with front and rear bodywork going back on, as well as the seat which is always a pain to put in and out.
But a few minutes later we were back up and running, and we were able to continue down the road. Despite delaying us by an hour, this was actually the first time we had been able to (inadvertently) test the crash sensor, and we were pleased with the way it safely shut down the car and allowed us to freewheel to a halt.
The drive was long but not especially difficult; there were a few short bursts of rain, but nothing to cause any fuss. The road remained good, and we were making good time. There are only 3 main things to report from the drive until around 100 miles outside Panama City. Firstly, I was being interviewed in the car by Claudio while I was driving, and in true man fashion, the difficulty of multitasking driving with talking to the camera made me forget to remove the handbrake. After a few miles I realised that our energy consumption was a bit crap, and something was wrong. After coming to a halt, the smell coming from the rear told me exactly what was wrong…the handbrake pads were now completely fried! Stupid me! Not a tragedy as they are readjusted fairly easily, but nonetheless a pretty big annoyance! I was deservedly teased by the team later on.
Next up, and far less interestingly, we saw a snake slithering across the road; the first time we had seen a snake on the trip so far. And lastly, the only thing of note was a massive crash of a petrol tanker off the side of the road. Given the nature of the crash, it looked very much like the driver must have fallen asleep, but nonetheless reminded us of the perils of driving on narrow single lane roads in countries with generally poor road safety records.
Around 100 miles before Panama City and after a quick stop for lunch, we met up with Daniel from Compulab, National Instrument’s local distributor. He led us into Panama City at breakneck speeds, and I was delighted to be able to push the limits of the SRZero on the smooth, windy and empty roads…great fun!
Upon entering the outskirts of the city we received our police escort which duly continued on with the speeding and, as usual, ushered us straight through the red lights. A major point of the drive at this stage was crossing the Bridge of the Americas, one of only several ways to cross between the 2 continents, and with this in mind, we took our first step (or drive) into South America! Woohoo!
However exciting this was though, it paled into insignificance compared to where we were headed to charge up…the Panama Canal! Just a few minutes later we were taken through security and parked right up on the canal bank. And what an absolutely incredible sight to see! Right next to us the huge Miraflores locks were working away raising and lowering huge ships without a sound. The atmosphere was absolutely electric…one could feel the energy of this place as being the lifeline and centre of world shipping, along with the huge weight of captivating history behind it. I can honestly say I have never been so impressed with such a place. However, we had to save the oggling for our private VIP tour the next day, and for now all we had to do was put the car on charge, and head to our hotel for some sleep before our big press day and tour tomorrow.
All I can say though is that with the canal ending the day’s proceedings, this was one of the most thrilling days of my life! A big thanks to Daniel for helping us into Panama City, and our extreme gratitude to the Panamanian Canal Authority for allowing us to charge off their electricity!