Solar cars race to the checkered flag at COTA

The 2014 Formula Sun Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas. (Ed Zavala, KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students are making big advances in cars that can run on solar power alone and putting them to the test.

Twenty solar car teams from colleges across the world gathered at the Circuit of the Americas track to compete in the Formula Sun Grand Prix with the hopes of qualifying for the American Solar Challenge.

The Formula Sun Grand Prix is a much quieter race then the track is accustomed to. The solar cars feature photovoltaic panels that turn the sun’s energy into electricity.

“It’s a car that you have to build from scratch,” said Charles Perry, Polytechnique Montreal. “We are not professional car builders, not a professional car company. We’re just students.”

Cloudy skies added an extra challenge.

“That is a little concerning,” said Fred Engelkemeir, a University of Texas student. “That means we’ll have to drive a little slower, burn up a little more of the battery than we’d like to but I think we can account for that in our race strategy.”

After passing inspections, called scrutineering, the teams go on to compete in a three-day endurance race.

“Basically it’s getting all of these students some experience with solving problems and making stuff work and building these very complicated systems,” said Fred Engelkemeir.

The team that logs the most laps in three days wins the Formula Sun Grand Prix. Teams that complete 60 laps in a day or 90 laps in two days also qualify for the American Solar Challenge, a cross country race that takes place every two years.

This year’s American Solar Challenge runs from Austin to Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s a route stretching more than 1,100 miles. The race kicks off Monday.

The University of Michigan team won the American Solar Challenge in 2012 with a time of just over 44 hours and 36 minutes. They traveled more than 1,600 miles from Rochester, New York to St. Paul, Minnesota.

The public is invited to head out to COTA Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to see the action. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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