CalSol solar powered car wins fourth place in American Solar Challenge

Berkeley’s Solar Vehicle Team, CalSol, placed fourth at the 2012 American Solar Challenge.
Derek Chou/Courtesy
Berkeley’s Solar Vehicle Team, CalSol, placed fourth at the 2012 American Solar Challenge.

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A metallic, grey rectangular vehicle with wheels and a bubble-like structure on its rear shoots down a road at speeds of up to 62 mph.

This is not a scene out of Mission Impossible. Rather, it was a scene that took place this past month during the 2012 American Solar Challenge, an eight-day solar vehicle race where UC Berkeley’s student-run team placed fourth out of 16 teams from around the country.

UC Berkeley’s Solar Vehicle Team, CalSol, began its first project in 1991 and is made up of 118 members. The group is divided into a business team, a mechanical team and an electrical team.  Fourteen members from the mechanical and electrical teams attended the race between teams of college students from around the country who build and drive solar-powered cars, which ran from July 6 to 14 from New York to Minnesota.

Ben Chen, a junior in mechanical engineering who is a member of the mechanical team, was one of seven CalSol team members who transported CalSol’s car, Impulse, from Berkeley to New York.

“In order to get through the race … our team had to drive from Berkeley to Monticello, New York, driving eight hours per day,” Chen said. “We got to bond and know each other, and we got to camp and relax before the race started.”

CalSol’s business team gains sponsors for the organization which contribute to the group’s finances, while the mechanical team builds the cars and the electrical team formulates plans to power the cars.

Katherine Liu, a junior double major in economics and statistics, is the head of the CalSol business team, which works to acquire sponsorship in order to build their cars. Volkswagen, Kreysler & Associates and Panasonic are three companies that are major sponsors for CalSol.

“It’s about making connections with people and companies,” Liu said. “Many people on our team interned at amazing companies and met many people and shared our story.”


All 16 teams that participated along with CalSol at the race met in Monticello on July 6 to register for the race and put their vehicles through a scrutineering process, during which professional engineers conducted electrical and mechanical testing to determine if the vehicles upheld the standards set by the challenge.

The CalSol members experienced difficulties during the process in meeting safety regulations — including meeting specific standards for brake performance and seat belt placement — which the team had to resolve quickly, according to Chen.

“Our car couldn’t pass the braking distance test; it wouldn’t stop correctly on wet pavement, and our seatbelts were misplaced,” Chen said. “Within a few hours we had implemented solutions to fix the problems.”

During the race, which began in Rochester, N.Y., Impulse was sandwiched between two other cars holding CalSol members — one acting as a lead, the other as a chase.

The people in all three vehicles would communicate with each other on multiple radios and cell phones to warn of safety hazards and find places to pull over, Chen said.

“Along with the safety hazards produced by constant thunderstorms and two rainy days, the race was stressful and exhausting,” Chen said.

Alex Cuevas, a senior in civil engineering , was one of three CalSol members who drove Impulse during the race. Although CalSol experienced difficulties finding people within their group to participate because many members were afraid that they would damage the car, Cuevas said he was excited to drive Impulse.

“(Impulse) is not as comfortable as a regular car, and it gets hot because it has no air conditioning, but I enjoyed it a lot and it was an interesting challenge,” Cuevas said.

 According to Cuevas and Chen, all the drivers underwent training a month prior to the race.

Ultimately, Chen found the competition to be marked by friendly competition and cooperation, which made the experience even more memorable.

“The solar vehicle race community is known for helping other teams. For example, Oregon State’s team helped out so many other teams by lending out car parts and generators,” Chen said. “We tried to help out other teams as well, and seeing that humans can look past their competitors and help each other out is one of the coolest things.”

The CalSol team hopes to pursue the creation of a two-seater vehicle for the 2014 American Solar Challenge and will be looking for new members to join the organization in the fall.

“We are looking to recruit new members for the upcoming semester,” Liu said. “We are open to all students, and it doesn’t matter how experienced you are.”

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  • I_h8_disqus

    Great job! We should have had this crew running Solyndra. They would have done a much better job.

  • Calipenguin

    Congratulations CalSol! I wonder if your car design allowed for tilting the solar panels to face the sun directly during operation?

    • Alex

      It does not. That would ruin the aerodynamics of the car and would not be worth the energy gain. However we have some ideas for how to improve our array’s power generation in our next car, and it may or may not involve cell movement based on our future design constraints.

  • Guest

    How long has this been going on, like 30 years. Hasn’t amounted to shat. Still can’t buy a solar car. It’s a charity project funded by the very interests that would lose out, which tells you everything you need to know.

    • Alex

      Do you go to concrete canoe articles and tell them that concrete canoes will never be mass-produced? It’s just a fun project. It challenges students and gives them real engineering experience.


      It isn’t about making solar cars for you to buy—that’s a fundamental misconception.

      It is about training students in design and project management, developing links between industry and education, and researching innovative ways to address the challenges that must be confronted in developing the things that you will actually get to buy. (Things like how to build durable, efficient, cost-effective solar arrays, or how to build roadworthy cars that are lightweight and aerodynamic.)

      Industry recognizes the value of all of this, and stands to gain much more from developing talent and subsidizing research than it stands to lose from a slow shift away from the status quo.

  • Alex

    go bears!