Electronic Design

Solar Cars Cross The Continent

Hybrids and electric cars may get all the buzz these days, but what if you could leave the grid entirely? That may not be as far-fetched as you think, based on the results of the 2008 North American Solar Challenge. Last month, 15 teams and their sun-powered cars charged 2400 miles across the continent to test the technology’s viability.

During the 10-day event, the teams raced from Plano, Texas, to the University of Calgary in Canada. The University of Michigan won its fifth NASC with a cumulative time of 51:41:53, beating its closest competition by more than 10 hours (Fig. 1). Principia College, the FH Bochum Solar Car Team, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Minnesota rounded out the top five, all finishing in less than 70 hours.

Before the race began, the teams had to submit their cars to “scrutineering,” as race officials ensured the entries met all power, performance, and safety requirements. For example, the solar array’s total area couldn’t exceed 6 m2. Cars also had to negotiate a course testing their maneuverability and braking. Roll cages and helmets were required as well. And of course, all competitors had to obey local traffic laws during the race.

Continuum, the University of Michigan car, averaged around 45 mph and led the race from the first day. In addition to the title, the team also won the event’s teamwork award. Named after the ancient Egyptian sun god, the Ra 7 from Principia College took second thanks to a completely redesigned Kokam lithium-polymer battery pack and a brand-new body (Fig. 2). The team from the University of Minnesota took home awards for best workmanship and excellence in mechanical design (Fig. 3).

“We are bringing home so many lessons from this year’s race that will help us immensely as we move forward into the third generation of our car,” said University of Calgary Solar Team operations manager Darshni Pillay. “The next North American Solar Challenge is only two years away, so we have a lot of work ahead of us as our team continues to improve and become more competitive.”

Before that, though, teams from around the world will prepare for the World Solar Challenge. Scheduled for October 18 through October 25, 2009, teams will cross some of the world’s most punishing terrain, driving about 1800 miles across Australia from tropical Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia. So far, more than 60 teams have expressed an interest in competing.

North American Solar Challenge


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