Engineering News

November 10, 2006 Vol. 77, no. 13F

DRIVEN: Winners of the 2006 NATCAR competition are, from left, Rick Mann, John Breneman and Robert Gregg. They were EECS seniors at the time this photo was taken. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT GREGG

Berkeley wins NATCAR for the fifth year in a row
Winning team figures out how to push its carís limits

For John Breneman (B.S.’06 EECS), a self-described radio-controlled car (R/C) hobbyist, nothing was better than taking EE 192, Mechatronics Design Lab, in his senior year. “I went to Berkeley specifically to take that class,” he says. “How could I resist making an R/C car that could drive itself?”

In the capstone lab, student teams develop small-scale electric cars that drive themselves smoothly around a preset, wired path that curves, jogs horizontally and loops back on itself. Teams then compete in the NATCAR competition, which is held each May at UC Davis and is sponsored by National Semiconductor. The fastest car wins. For five years running, Berkeley Engineering has won the competition, and this year swept first through third.

Breneman, along with Robert Gregg (B.S.’06 EECS) and Rick Mann (B.S.’06 EECS) developed this year’s winning car, which set the competition’s new speed record of 9.86 feet per second. “We designed our vehicle’s simple control system to the point where we met the physical limits of the hardware,” says Gregg. “We then made racing tweaks to the car to push those limits. It’s all about pushing the vehicle’s limits.”

Course instructor and EECS professor Ron Fearing knows there’s a method to the madness. “Information-driven machines are ubiquitous,” he says. “Students in the class learn how everything — motors, sensors, electronics, signal processing, control, power, wiring and fabrication issues — has to work together. And the competition really stresses the idea of having a system work when it needs to, not just once in a while.”

Looking back, Breneman, Gregg and Mann credit several factors for their win. Their unique design employed a high-performance chassis (for better handling), a custom-made microcontroller board (to speed software development), and a brushless motor (for greater efficiency). To make the most of their testing time, they developed a wireless communications link so they wouldn’t have to pick up the car and connect it to a computer every time. “We also took advantage of the CNC laser to design very clean and low-profile mounting hardware for the car,” explains Mann. “This helped keep the center of gravity low, which improved the car’s stability in turns.”

On the day of the competition, that all paid off for the threesome, despite nervousness, sleep deprivation and the threat of a mysterious bug that would cause their car to speed offcourse and send components up in smoke.

Breneman, who now works as a controls engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, loved the class. “Now I go around looking at all these consumer products, saying, ‘Could I have designed this?’”

Do you have the drive? To learn more about EE 192, go to

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