Could the Solar Bug bring the sun to the car market?

Steve Titus is among those entrepreneurs trying to create and market an affordable, renewable-energy vehicle – a step beyond gas-electric hybrids.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the local airport parking lot, Steve Titus clicks shut the lightweight fiberglass door of his fireman-yellow "Solar Bug."

It looks like another bug – a Volkswagen one – that got sliced in half by a band saw, then pinched front to back by the Jolly Green Giant.

Mr. Titus straddles the saddle-style seat and revs the Hi-Torque Pancake motor. It whirs away quietly, reaching a top speed of 40 miles per hour in a few seconds.

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On display at a recent alternative-car expo here, this is Titus's second and latest rendering of a solar-powered car concept. It gets up to a fourth of its 60-mile capacity from 200 watts of roof-mounted solar panels.

Titus is among those entrepreneurs trying to create and market an affordable, renewable-energy vehicle – a step beyond gas-electric hybrids.

The ranks of potential buyers for such cars are growing by leaps and bounds, say many car-industry analysts. But don't look for them on normal streets just yet, they add quickly. Limitations of batteries and solar panels – though lessening – are still issues, among others.

Yet "fringe markets" – such as commuters within small towns, seniors in retirement villages, and users of industry fleets – are in a position to drive the first sales boomlet for such cars, analysts say.

Until then, Titus and other inventor-tinkerer types are offering a peek into the future of transportation in America – well before the major car companies.

"Garage tinkerers like Titus are the tip of an iceberg of innovation demonstrating the direction of the national, global trend," says Steven Letendre, professor of business, economics, and environment at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., who lectures widely on the future of electric and hybrid cars and solar energy.

In fact, their ideas are increasingly showing up in the mass-market innovations of larger car companies, Dr. Letendre and others say. America's Ford Motor Co., Japan's Mazda, and Europe's Venturi Motors have all debuted prototypes at exhibitions with solar panels that boost electricity for internal lighting.

"Because of global warming, depletion of oil reserves, [and] the risks of a transportation system totally dependent on oil, there is a fundamental shift of attention towards electric and alternative power cars for more flexibility," says Letendre.

Particularly in the US, say other experts, the innovative drive is coming from places other than big companies.

"Americans are interested in innovation, and Detroit has not delivered," says Jack Hidary, chairman of SmartTransportation.org, a nonprofit corporation that tries to increase the awareness and availability of clean technology. "It is people like Titus in their garages who are the ones making innovation happen."

Titus, who is based in Bozeman, Mont., has 25 years of experience bringing alternative-power products to market, working with more than a dozen businesses that range from medical equipment to lasers. About seven years ago, he got tired of driving to the gas pump, paying high prices, and watching the geopolitical clashes over oil in the Middle East.

He began working on designs for a car in his spare time, and 18 months ago, he quit his job at Big Sky Laser Technologies to work on his project full time. He has spent $100,000 – "all the savings from my retirement account," he says – experimenting with body design, braking, batteries, lighting, controls, and safety features.

After exhibiting his latest prototype, he has 53 orders, and seven dealers have signed up to sell his cars. Multiple-unit buyers such as the Walt Disney Co. and the government of Aruba have also expressed significant interest. The 900-pound two-seater is currently being offered for about $15,000.

"Last year, people told us they wanted a cooler body, sexier wheels, better seating, more mileage, and faster speeds," says Titus. "We gave it to them, and interest is exploding."

Of course, challenges remain in selling the cars to a broader audience. The distance that such a vehicle can travel in one trip is well under 100 miles. And although the top velocity for the cars has increased, they still don't reach highway speeds. In fact, for the solar power to work best, the vehicle needs to travel at a low or medium speed. Other hurdles include how to manufacture and mass-market the vehicles.

Still, of 150 exhibits at the Alternative Car and Transportation Expo last month in Santa Monica, Calif., the Solar Bug was the "highlight of the show," according to Ron Gompertz, founder of Eco Auto Inc., a car dealer.

Some industry experts see a growing potential for such entrepreneurial ventures. "The interest in photovoltaic use in cars is making great headway in other countries such as Japan and Germany, but is still somewhat behind in the US, where consumers still want quite a bit of power and size and comfort," says Denise Chiavetta, leader of the technology foresight program at Social Technologies, a global research firm.

But some US consumers can hardly wait for more innovation. Take Cara Lee, an architect in Santa Monica who has owned a gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius for six years. She now wants something that uses no gas.

"I like that this [Solar Bug] costs very little to buy and run, parks easily, can take me back and forth to work, and do quick errands," she says. "But mostly, I like that it charges by the sun."

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