UC Berkeley solar car team overcomes obstacles in international race

Tony Zhou/File
Members of the CalSol team work to finish their solar car.

Though the sun shone in the Australian outback, Impulse, the solar car from UC Berkeley, struggled.

The car, engineered by students from the campus solar vehicle team CalSol, had been plagued by battery problems that left it with very little power as it pushed toward the finish on the last day of the World Solar Challenge.

Despite this, the car sped on.

“It became a sprint on the last day to get as much distance as we could,” said Chris Cartland, the team manager who traveled with Impulse. “It was a strategic battle to try and maximize our distance before all the battery ran out and the car shut off.”

In the end, Impulse finished 20th out of 37 teams from around the globe — even though the car did not make it all the way to Adelaide, where the race officially ended. This was CalSol’s first attempt in the roughly 1,800-mile challenge, a transcontinental sprint from Darwin to Adelaide held every other year.

The team finished racing on Oct. 22, but because another team contested the preliminary results, the challenge did not release finalized results until Friday. CalSol’s standing did not change.

Throughout the challenge, the team faced numerous obstacles. On the second day, the team replaced one of  its battery modules after noticing it was draining faster than the others, according to Cartland.

However, the problem persisted, eventually necessitating the removal of the problematic batteries, Cartland said.

In order to get as much distance as possible, the team had to trailer certain portions of the race — meaning the car was put on a trailer and driven down the course at some points.

“We knew fairly early on that we weren’t going to win the race, but … it was a question of how many teams can we beat and how many kilometers can we get,” Cartland said.

Additionally, a brush fire held up the team on the third day of the race. According to Chris Selwood, the event director of the challenge, authorities closed a 150-kilometer section of the Stuart Highway where the teams were racing for four hours.

Other challenge participants from the United States included teams from the University of Michigan, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those teams placed third, 11th and 15th, respectively.

Moving forward, Impulse will be improved to compete in the American Solar Challenge next summer, according to Katherine Liu, a member of CalSol’s business team. From there, the team may construct a new car in order to participate in the next World Solar Challenge in 2013, Liu said.

But solar vehicles are probably not going to become the primary source of alternative energy-powered transportation soon, according to Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute.

“In the future they are potentially, right now they’re certainly not, but it’s one of the technologies that we should be working on,” Borenstein said. “Basically, the panels would have to become a lot more efficient.”

Still, constructing solar cars for races such as the World Solar Challenge is a good way to stir interest in pushing the technology forward, Borenstein said.

Overall, Cartland said he felt CalSol did well in its first stab at the World Solar Challenge.

“We of course got hung up along the way, but the problems that came up were just problems we hadn’t actually seen before,” he said.

J.D. Morris is the lead environment reporter.