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Light cars take on heavy trips

Automotive innovators are proving that low-weight, high-efficiency cars can go the distance. But can they can make it in the marketplace?

If anyone thinks that lightweight cars can't cover long stretches of the road, the solar-powered XOF1 electric car should convince them how wrong they are. Back in 2008, the spacey-looking car's creator and driver, Marcelo da Luz, steered the XOF1 (which stands for "Power of One") from Buffalo, N.Y., to the Canadian Arctic, then down to California, then over to Florida, then back up to Canada and the Arctic again.

In April, the 470-pound XOF1 became the first all-solar car to travel Canada's Ice Highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the high Arctic, as documented in this amazing CBC News documentary. Da Luz now holds the world distance record for solar-powered automobile travel, racking up 22,436 miles (36,220 kilometers) on the XOF1.

Along the way, he's been pulled over 26 times - sometimes just because troopers wanted to take his picture, and one time because somebody told police in Palmer, Alaska, that a UFO was spotted traveling down the road. "They checked to make sure I'm not an alien," da Luz, who was born in Brazil and lives in Toronto, told me today. "Well, yes I am, but just because I'm not from the U.S."

Da Luz is visiting Seattle this weekend to talk about his solar-powered odyssey at the Shoreline Solar Project's annual Solarfest.

Why is a former flight attendant mortgaging his house and taking out loans to hit the road in a freaky flying-saucer car? It all began in 1987 when he heard about the Solar Challenge for sun-powered cars in Australia. "I thought, 'That's the future - I want to build a car and compete in that race.'" He put that thought on hold for 12 years, but eventually "the pain of not following the dream became unbearable," he said.

He said it took an estimated 50,000 hours of volunteer labor to build the car from polyurethane foam and fiberglass, cover it with 893 solar cells and get it on the road. The solar array's maximum output is about 900 watts. "With less energy than a toaster, I can charge the batteries and drive the car," da Luz said. The maximum range for night driving is 120 miles, but eventually the sun is going to have to shine. Da Luz's car has no provision for plug-in charging.

"On my worst days I drove for 4 miles ... or not at all," he said.

Now da Luz is hustling to raise the money for his biggest challenge yet. "If I find enough sponsors, I will drive the car from the Arctic to the tip of South America," he said. But as far as he's concerned, making money is not the point.

"The whole idea with the car is to promote the use of clean, renewable energy," da Luz told me. "Any electric car can be covered with solar cells. Maybe they will generate only 10, 15, 20 percent of the power needed for the car. But that's 10, 15, 20 percent less from the environment, and from your pocketbook."

Making cars lightweight is one of the leading strategies for making them more energy-efficient. At least that's the approach taken with the XOF1 solar car, as well as with the Very Light Cars being fielded in the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize by the Virginia-based Edison2 team. Unlike de Luz, however, the engineers and entrepreneurs behind Edison2 are counting on making money. Maybe lots of money.


David Imbaratto / Stellar Exploration for Planetary Society

One of Edison2's four-seat mainstream cars takes to the track during the Knockout phase of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize. The car is a front-runner for the competition's $5 million top prize.

Edison2 has two experimental cars in the running for the contest's top prize of $5 million - in fact, they're the only cars that haven't been eliminated in the competition for four-seat mainstream vehicles. The team also has a two-seater in competition for one of the two $2.5 million prizes being offered for alternative vehicles.

To win the $5 million, at least one of Edison2's ethanol-burning cars will have to get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline (MPGe) in a 200-mile drive while satisfying all the safety and emission requirements for a marketable vehicle. To win the $2.5 million, the two-seater would have to get the same mileage but meet a less stringent range requirement of 100 miles. And by the way, it would have to beat out all the other competitors in its class.

During last month's X Prize Knockout round, one of the Edison2 mainstream cars actually exceeded the 100 MPGe mark, but after penalties were assessed for irregularities in the car's operation, the score was barely good enough to make the cutoff. The final round begins next week at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., and the stakes couldn't be higher.

"We feel good about it," David Brown, director of communications for the Edison2 team, told me today. "But we know it's a challenge and we're right on the edge. The truth is, we need to do it without penalties, and that's our anticipation."

Brown said he and his teammates are keeping its focus on the finals, "because that's important to us," but they can't help but think as well about what will happen after the X Prize.

"One of the lessons of the X Prize is that you're not going to get dramatic changes in fuel efficiency by modifying an existing car," he said.

Edison2's Very Light Cars show that low-mass vehicles can produce dramatic improvements in energy efficiency while still providing a safe, sure ride on the racetrack or on the highway. The Very Light Cars have a curb weight of less than 800 pounds - which is a third of the weight of a Mini Cooper, or half the weight of a Smart Car. "Moving toward lightweight cars, we feel strongly, is in this country's future," Brown said.

The way Edison2 sees it, the key to success isn't necessarily so much about the power source - whether it's ethanol, or diesel, or plug-in electric power, or good old gasoline. It's more about the aerodynamics and the materials that serve as the platform for the power source.

"We chose a path for the X Prize, and that path involved an internal combustion engine," Brown said. "But we actually feel what's significant about this car is the platform, and we're looking forward to exploring that platform with all the sources of power available to us. We believe it's the direction where we need to go."

Edison2's innovators may be heading in that direction, but they realize they can't create the car of the future all by themselves.

"We see ourselves developing collaborations with other companies to see these ideas go into production," Brown said. "There are all sorts of places where we took a fork in the road, but the other fork had a lot of promise, too. We feel as if there's a part of all this that ends with the X Prize - but there's also a part that starts with the end of the X Prize."

Is there a lightweight car in your future? Or do you need a heavier chassis to feel protected? Feel free to "weigh" in with your comments below.

Update for 9:10 p.m. ET: XOF1's Marcelo da Luz responded to some questions from one of my Facebook friends, Tony Rusi, and was kind enough to send me a copy of his replies. Here's the edited Q&A:

Tony Rusi: After all your experience with solar-electric cars, do you feel as if your design would be practical if mass-produced today?

Marcelo da Luz: Any electric vehicle could be covered in solar cells, even if the cells only generate 50 percent, 30 percent or 10 percent of charging due to weather and short winter days. That is 50 percent, 30 percent or 10 percent less on the environment and less on our pockets.

XOF1 was designed and built for efficiency, not as a practical vehicle to be driven every day. However, much of its technology and design can be transferred to a future vehicle design to accommodate a more practical application. For example, passenger and luggage.

Q: Do you have any ballpark idea of how much they would cost, if mass-produced by a big auto company that was making hundreds of thousands of them a year?

A: The popular Tata car is set to sell in India for about $2,500. The research and development effort cost them millions. My uneducated guess would be initially be $50,000 to $60,000, dropping down to $20,000 to $30,000 a few years later. I don't have experience with large-scale manufacturing to give an educated guess on the cost of producing a vehicle. XOF1 cost 50,000 man-hours, design, R&D, testing, etc... The reduction of cost would be a direct result of the volume being produced.

Q: Have you ever been approached by anyone from Tesla, Toyota or Nissan about mass-producing your vehicle?

A: No. I would welcome the opportunity to work with anyone interest to design XOF2. The next generation of XOF1.

Q: Did you feel safe in regular car traffic and on the freeway in the U.S. in your solar car?

A: I felt very safe. XOF1 is made out of Polyurethane foam (6-pound-per-cubic-feet density) covered in fiberglass, reinforced with carbon fiber. Foam has incredible absorbing properties in case of impact.

Q: You must be quite a spectacle on the road! Do the police stop you often because you are so novel? Or do they stop you because you create a traffic delay? And is the novelty factor wearing off at all with more electrics on the road all the time?

A: Yes, I have been pulled over by the police 26 times. In Palmer, Alaska, someone called 911 about an UFO on the road. In Washington, D.C., I got pulled over by the Secret Service on one day and a SWAT team the next day. It is not easy being green :-)

Q: Do you feel that an electric bike can be made into a solar-electric bike? Would you feel safer on a good dedicated bike trail versus a U.S. freeway?

A: Absolutely. Any electric vehicle including e-bikes could take advantage of charging with sunlight. In the case of an e-bike, a deployable panel might be more practical to use while the e-bike is stationary. It could also take advantage of small-scale wind generation while stationary. Any vehicle on a freeway should be able to sustain the minimum speed of the highway. Electric motorcycles are capable of 100 mph+. An e-bike with a 500-watt motor can't get over 20 mph, in which case they should only be allowed where human-powered bikes are.

Q: Could your solar car fairing be made to "tilt up" 90 degrees so that you could quickly get your vehicle between the closely spaced pylons that keep most motorized vehicles off of bike trails in the USA?

A: Yes, it could. However, there is always a snowball effect. Adding complexity to the design could translate in efficiency losses.

Q: I have heard that CIGS thin-film solar cells are getting near a dollar a watt. Do you know of anyone building a solar cars with those types of solar cells?

A: Due to the limited about of space to harvest solar energy, most solar vehicles use the most efficient solar cells they can get. I am not aware of anyone using thin film on a vehicle. However, for stationary applications it is a great way to reduce cost. Roofs and ports can be covered by cheap panels to charge electric vehicles.

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