Here comes the sun: solar-powered cars

It may feel like dark days are ahead every time you pull up to a gas station, but pockets of people around the world are trying to change that.

Exhibit A: the world's longest race involving solar-powered cars. Right now, 25 cars are competing in a 2,400-mile race from Plano, Texas to Alberta, Canada. The 2008 North American Solar Challenge (NASC) is a contest to design, build and drive solar-powered cars and then whip the other person's butt in a cross-country race. Not that this is going to become anything like the Cannonball Run, the illegal highway races that inspired the 1981 movie, The Cannonball Run. According to a blog from one of the teams, the average speed in this race is 41 miles per hour.

Not that we're going to be buying solar-powered cars any time soon. The competitors are primarily engineering students from various colleges around the United States, Canada and Europe, and we're still in the experimental stages. For instance, the car being driven by students from the University of Minnesota cost between $200,000 to $300,000 to build (the money came from funding and corporate sponsorships). Even if someone wanted to pay that much for a car, their vehicle only seats one person.

This is also the first year that the university's car has been retrofitted so someone can sit upright, which makes me wonder how comfortable these automobiles used to be.

And temperatures inside the car can reach 130 degrees. Clearly, that's one of the kinks that still needs to be worked out in a solar-powered car.

As you can see by the photo, these types of cars won't replace a spacious SUV any time soon. Still, you have to start somewhere, and maybe it's a good sign that a car company, Toyota, is sponsoring the race. (Oh, sorry. I mean, the rayce. In solar lingo, they spell it rayce, like sun ray.)

It probably says something that when the semiannual race first occurred in 2001, they didn't have any automobile manufacturing sponsors. They were getting the backing of organizations like the Department of Energy and Terion, a wireless company later bought by GE... but no car company.

How short-sighted can you get? It's not like we weren't talking in 2001 about oil supplies someday running out. It was kind of a big subject during the oil crisis of the 1970s, for instance. And while the Department of Energy deserves plaudits for funding the race initially, as well as in 2003 and 2005, even they backed out of last year's race, pulling their funding. Nice.

Toyota's involvement got it started again this summer. As did Crowder College of MARET Center in Neosho, Missouri, which is also sponsoring the race. When I checked out their web site, they had a reference to a wind turbine. Clearly, if we have cars fueled by alternative energy someday, it will be colleges like this, that we can thank. Oh, and a switch-maker company called Defond also is a sponsor. (Hey, I want to give credit where credit is due.)

These cars have several hundred solar panels on them, generating 1,200 watts of electricity, which according to my press release is about what it takes to run a hairdryer. Most of the cars in the race weigh about 700 pounds.

Whatever our car of the future looks like, it certainly might include solar power. According to Elon Musk, who was interviewed about the car of the future in Newsweek this month, he believes that cars will someday have a solar power panel on the roof, to generate 200 to 400 miles a week of electricity for the vehicle. Granted, Musk owns Tesla Motors, a California-based electric-car manufacturer, and SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power homes and businesses in the Sunshine State. So he has reason to hope for this, but this is an intelligent guy. He co-founded a company you may have heard of: PayPal.

In the meantime, though, if you're intrigued by the idea of a solar-powered car, you can learn more from the aforementioned race's web site or blog, and if you're in one of the following towns, you might even want to check it out and get an idea of what we someday might be driving. All of the cities and towns below are either checkpoints for the race or what they call "stage stops." Either way, these are places you can see the solar cars up close and personal.

July 18-19: They drive to Fargo, North Dakota.
July 19-20: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
July 20: Brandon, Manitoba, Canada
July 20-21: Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
July 21-22: Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada
July 22: Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

I realize gas isn't going anywhere soon, and as prices rise, it often feels like none of us are going to be going anywhere at all. But at least some people are trying to change things. If this type of car eventually runs the way our current cars do, there are literally bright days ahead. And, of course, I can't help but point out -- these solar-powered cars are costing as high as $300,000? Think how much gas that could buy!

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Race (Rodale), a nonfiction tale about getting across the country, the really hard way.

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