Fifteen solar cars from Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and India set off Thursday on a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) race through the uber-dry Atacama Desert in the second Atacama Solar Challenge.
The start line for the November 15-19 race, first launched last year to encourage the development of low-cost environmentally-friendly vehicles, was in the Humberstone saltpeter, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Chile's capital, Santiago.
The saltpeter, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a ghost town—with all its high-end facilities, including a pool, a hospital, a theater, a hotel and a tennis court, lying abandoned since salt mining was halted there more than a decade ago.
The fifteen competing vehicles—some powered exclusively by the sun's rays and some solar- and pedal-powered hybrids—were to race across 330 kilometers (205 miles) in the first leg.
This year's favorite was the entry from the returning champion University of La Serena team, with its newly remodeled Intikallpa, named using the Quechua word for "solar energy."
"This year, we came with better engineering design, which makes the car more competitive," team member Leonardo Saguas told AFP, boasting his car can reach maximum speeds of 120 kilometers per hour.
His team was busily cleaning its car's solar panels, while their main rivals, from the University of Chile worked to protect their car's plates, to keep them cool and maximize performance.
Also participating were racers developed by universities in Argentina, Venezuela and India.
Most of the solar-powered vehicles consist of a flat rectangular vessel lined with solar panels to absorb solar energy, which is stored in batteries, and with a cubicle to house the driver.
"On this day, the strategy is not to make a mistake. We have a climb to get to Calama," the end of the first leg, said Saguas, "but on Friday the climb is even harder."
The vehicles will share the road with regular cars, trucks and buses as they speed to the finish line.
Last year's race, held in October 2011, saw 30 teams from seven countries in Latin America participating. The teams traveled on a 1,060-kilometer course during three days of competition.
Explore further: From plant matter to jet fuel: Streamlining the production of ultraclean fuel