The American Solar Challenge

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Learn and Explore

The pioneering spirit lives on! The Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) and the National Park Service are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act by hosting the American Solar Challenge (ASC), in partnership with Innovators Educational Foundation. From July 14-22, 2018 teams from around the globe will head west along the natural corridor used by American Indians and 19th century emigrants, but instead of traveling in wagons, they will drive solar cars. Qualified participants will make daily stops in communities and national parks along the route. The public is invited to meet the drivers, learn about the cars, and discover a piece of history at every stopping point as well as participate in special activities and events presented by the OCTA volunteers and park rangers at each of the locations. Join us on the trail through our social media.

wagon box on four large wooden wheels and hooped frame on top for holding a canvas cover car with planar shape, top covered in solar cells with a single driver cage protruding from it, wheels extending down from it
Wagon innovations allowed the movement of entire families overland with their belongings. NPS Photo
ASC teams build solar cars to withstand road conditions and efficiently capture, store, and use solar energy to power the entire trip. American Solar Challenge 2016

Blazing a Trail With Innovation

Much like emigrants on the trail before them, the race participants will demonstrate their technological ingenuity along a course that follows portions of the Oregon National Historic Trail. Just as missionaries in the 1830s found ways to move wheeled vehicles across “impassable” areas, these drivers use their creativity, knowledge, and determination to independently navigate their self-designed solar vehicles from Omaha, Nebraska to Bend, Oregon. The long-distance race combines city and highway driving under real world conditions, and participants must plan strategies to account for weather conditions and fuel management. While the solar cars will set a leisurely pace, making stops the way, they will only take ten days to travel from Omaha, Nebraska to Bend, Oregon. The Oregon Trail, however, though it may have been a “superhighway” of westward expansion, was a grueling four-month trek.


For both modern solar pioneers and Oregon Trail emigrants alike, energy efficiency has been a challenge. Since the sun is the only source of fuel for the ASC cars, teams keep a close eye on the weather and how it will affect the energy their cars collect and expend. Cars are designed to be lightweight and minimize friction in order to increase energy efficiency, which leads to their streamlined appearance, narrow wheels – sometimes only three of them – and broad surfaces covered with solar panels. Where the solar car trades bulky storage space for quick travel between stops, the “prairie schooner” design provided a home for the many nights between supply stations or settlements. A truly off-road vehicle, the covered wagon had large wooden wheels to move over rough ground. The wheels were covered with an iron band to protect the wooden rim, and the front pair were smaller to make turning easier. Teams in the ASC use their understanding of engineering and electronics to design strong, efficient motors that are capable of climbing 3,000 feet through South Pass. A covered wagon’s “engine” was just as important. Horses, mules, bulls, and cows could pull wagons, but oxen were generally considered the best choice due to their power and adaptability to water and feed conditions along the trail. Of course, just as repeated testing for solar car systems is necessary, training the oxen was of utmost importance; in fact, it could mean life or death when sounds or movements could startle them and cause a stampede.


Over-packing seems to be a timeless challenge. Aware that they needed to be prepared for anything, not knowing what they would truly need, and at times convinced by suppliers to make last-chance purchases at jumping-off points, emigrants’ heavy wagons made for slow-going. That, in turn, made it more likely they would run out of water and food before reaching the next watering hole or supply station. Added weight is also a factor that some teams with solar cars carrying up to four people must consider. Get information about this year’s teams and follow links to learn more about their cars.


National Park Service News About the American Solar Challenge

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    Last updated: May 9, 2019

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