Sun-powered cars roll to a crossroads

This week's World Solar Challenge points outs a change in how carmakers

If it's the roar of a turbocharged V-8 speeding around the track at Daytona you love, well, this isn't the car race for you. The World Solar Challenge isn't just environmentally friendly, it's easy on the ears too.

The 40 solar cars in this year's 1,866-mile race across Australia's rugged red center left Darwin quietly last weekend, looking like like an army of carbon-fiber cockroaches. Held every three years and now in its fifth running, the World Solar Challenge is the premier event for solar-car buffs.

"This is the Daytona 500 of solar racing," says Dave Ward, a member of the University of Minnesota team.

But this year, the World Solar Challenge has reached a crossroads. For the first time in the race's history, no major car manufacturer has showed up at the starting line. And that has pointed out a major change in the way carmakers who had been spending millions on developing and bringing cutting-edge solar cars to Australia are now thinking about solar energy.

Organizers insist the interest from other companies is still high and argue car manufacturers help fund many of the top teams in the race. For example, defense giant Lockheed Martin is one of the major sponsors of a private California team.

Race director Andrew Daniels says one of the most important points of the race is still to advocate alternative energy sources as an option. The cars in the race may not be the everyday cars of the future, he argues, "but the technology, ingenuity, and search for a more environmentally friendly form of transportation is one of the goals."

But even some environmentalists consider that message, which has been used since the race's inception, to be old-fashioned. "The relevance of the overall message is still very important," says Clive Hamilton, an expert in environmental policy at Australian National University in Canberra. "But I think the solar-car race itself is losing its relevance because the recognition is that solar energy is not going to be powering our cars in 50 years' time."

Auto manufacturers are pouring more money than ever into developing cars that run on alternative fuels, Mr. Hamilton says, but that research is now being done on things like fuel cells and hybrid cars that mix battery power with the traditional combustion engine.

The Solar Challenge's organizers concede there's been a change in consumer attitudes. Once a novelty item with an environmental conscience, solar cars just aren't as hip or fresh as they used to be. The dip in oil prices, among other things, has brought on an era of consumption in which gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles have become suburban fashion accessories.

Organizers also hint that the political will in industrialized nations to encourage more widespread use of alternative energy sources seems to be lacking, despite the passing of some legislation to encourage car companies to develop the electric-car market. "With the current electric vehicle technology, 99 percent of the commuting public in all the industrialized nations could use electric cars to get to work," race official Chris Selwood says. But "that's just not going to happen anytime soon."

Even if the solar station wagon isn't likely to hit the market soon, solar technology still has a lot of potential in other areas, according to Hamilton, the environmental-policy expert. Hundreds of public phones in remote parts of Australia now run on solar power, and the houses in which athletes will stay at next year's Sydney Olympics have been designed to run largely on solar power.

For all the arguments about the World Solar Challenge's relevance, there are still impressive advancements. This year's winner, who is expected to arrive at the finish line in Adelaide sometime Oct. 21, is likely to average twice the speed of the first winner in 1987. The best cars have top speeds near 75 miles per hour.

Those speeds still come at a cost, though. The cars are "not made for comfort," says Nathan Rues, a driver for the team from the University of Missouri-Rolla. "They're made for one thing right now, and that's racing."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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