CalSol to enter solar car in international race across Australia

Tony Zhou/Staff
The solar vehicle built by CalSol, UC Berkeley's Solar Vehicle team, sits behind an open trailer.

Fueled solely by energy from the sun, a car engineered by UC Berkeley students will embark on a transcontinental sprint across the Australian outback next month.

As part of the biennial World Solar Challenge, about 20 members of the campus solar car team CalSol will compete against teams from around the globe in a roughly 1,800-mile race that begins Oct. 16. The team’s car, Impulse, is the seventh solar vehicle from CalSol, but marks the first time the campus has had its own team competing in the challenge.

The vehicle is the culmination of about two years of design and construction and cost about $150,000 to complete, according to team members. Its aerodynamic frame — which supports about six square meters of solar cells that charge the car’s batteries — was built to withstand the rigors of the race.

“It really comes down to reliability, because it’s such a long race,” said Katherine Liu, a member of CalSol’s business team. “Obviously, you want to have a car that travels fast … but it comes down to how reliable your car is when you’re in the desert and the outback there — that’s really the name of the game at that stage.”

Prior to the start of the race from Darwin to Adelaide, the car will be subject to about four days of inspection and tests. Impulse was shipped to Australia via sea at the end of last month, in part because the lithium ion batteries that help fuel it are toxic materials that make it difficult to transport in a plane.

The competition is composed mainly of other universities, including fellow United States teams from Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan. International teams include groups from Japan, the United Kingdom and Iran, among others.

During the race, Impulse — which itself only seats one passenger — will travel with several other vehicles containing team members assisting with race logistics such as monitoring the car’s electrical system. Challenge regulations mandate that one member cannot drive for more than four hours in a row for safety reasons.

Though team members have staggered their journeys to Australia, they have been instructed to gather there by Sept. 28 to allow for even more preparation in advance of the competition. Those members have taken a semester’s break from their studies in order to participate.

“It’s a kind of experience that you don’t have very often,” said Steven Rhodes, the team’s electrical lead who will be on the road with Impulse’s caravan. “It’s something that will just change you hopefully for the better … from being there and living through that whole thing.”

But the team is not expecting this solar car to be the transportation of the future, largely due to the impracticality of current designs.

“We don’t think Impulse is going to be a car that we mass produce on the road,” Liu said. “The thing is, though, all the skills that our team members are learning are directly applicable to real life situations.”

In previous years, CalSol raced its vehicles in North American solar challenges such as the Formula Sun Grand Prix, an annual solar car race most recently held on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Moving beyond the World Solar Challenge, Team Lead Will Drevno said that once data is gathered from Impulse, the team can perhaps begin designs for its next solar car.

“It’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Drevno said.