Solar-powered car race rips up Australia, US on tap for 2008

The Panasonic World Solar Challenge is underway in Australia where 41 solar-powered cars - with four teams from the US - are racing 1,870 miles across the country's rugged Northern Territory to try to win the 20th running of the event when it ends on Thursday.

And they do race - in the event's 20 year history, the average speed of solar cars has risen from 42 MPH in 1987 to a top speed of 65 MPH in the most recent race, according to Panasonic's race Web site.

Over the years the challenge has become a test bed for all sorts of vehicle design from aerodynamics to tires. All manner of prototypes for testing the most efficient solar cell arrays, new types of car battery systems, including the latest Lithium ion packs, mechanisms for recharging batteries efficiently are also tested during the race. Most large car manufactures such as Ford, Honda and Toyota are well represented.

The race includes three classes of cars, with two classes for solar cars (the Challenge Class and Adventure Class) and another for vehicles demonstrating fuel-efficient technologies such as low-carbon fuels (the Greenfleet Technology Class). These vehicles also run on Ethanol and canola oil.

There are only three main restrictions to the Challenge -vehicle dimensions, daily travelling times (8am-5pm) and that vehicle propulsion may be derived only from direct global solar radiation. Apart from this, there are no boundaries, Panasonic says.

The event use a dynamic Route map system online here that will show the locations of teams as they make the trek.The US teams from the University of Michigan and Oregon State University will race in the Challenge Class, while Stanford University and the Houston Solar Car Race Team will race in the Adventure Class. The Houston team is a high school team from the Houston Vocational Center in Houston, Mississippi. Their car has previously raced in two solar races in the US: the Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge and the North American Solar Challenge.

And organizers are planning to bring solar car racing back to North America in 2008. The 2008 North American Solar Challenge will cover 2,400 miles as it heads north from Dallas, Texas, to its end point in Calgary, Alberta. The race is scheduled to start in Dallas on July 13th and end in Calgary on July 21st, with an awards ceremony on July 22nd. The Web site currently lists 20 university teams that are participating in the race, including 15 teams from the United States and 5 teams from Canada.

Some other cool facts about the Panasonic World Solar Challenge:

* The last Challenge the winning vehicle 'Nuna III' recorded a maximum speed of 65 MPH, which is a full 10 MPH faster than the newly introduced Northern Territory speed limit

* For overseas teams, often the biggest challenge can be getting their vehicle to Australia. In a rather unique move, a team once attempted to send their vehicle via Fed-Ex to Sydney (as they didn't allow the time it would take to get to Darwin - the race's start city).

* The team from the Hachinche Institute of Technology in Japan says one of the best aspects of their car's design is that it has been tested and proven to be able to withstand lightning.

* The New Zealand Team Bios Fuel Corp claim to have found a way of running a conventional diesel engine in a blend of 40% water and 60% waste mineral oil. In the spirit of 'never say never, the PWSC organisers are giving the team a forum to prove whether it works or not.

* The smallest solar car participating this year is from France's Helios Team - at a size of 4m x 1.5m.

* For the first time ever in the event's history, the driver's seating in the solar cars is being regulated for its level of tilt - this year seats are more 'upright' than ever before and must not be at a slant any greater than 27 degrees.

* Another first-time rule this year - unaided driver access. This year drivers must be able to get in and out of their solar cars without assistance (in previous years most vehicles were designed such that drivers needed a lot of help getting in and out).

* Each team has four drivers and must change drivers regularly to combat driver fatigue.

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