Reuters | 17 September 1990
By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY: A solar-powered car race across the Australian outback will feature some of the world's biggest auto makers in a battle to develop the car of the future.
The World Solar Challenge will in November showcase the best technology of 44 competitors from 10 nations. Among them are General Motors Corp and Honda Motor Co Ltd.
Toyota Motor Corp, Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Mitsubishi Motors Corp will also compete, participants say, but have chosen to register under the names of individual engineers or student groups. GM holds the record the others have to beat in the 3,000 km race. It won the inaugural 1987 race on the solar equivalent of 23 litres of fuel.
While solar cars are not expected to replace petrol-driven vehicles, their development is hastening the commercialisation of electric vehicles powered by batteries and solar energy.
The Gulf crisis has highlighted the extent of the world's reliance on oil, prompting many governments to re-examine renewable energies and giving added incentive to private companies to develop solar power. While solar cars are not expected to replace petrol-driven vehicles anytime soon, their development is hastening the commercialisation of electric vehicles powered by batteries and solar energy.
Technological advances by GM in building its winning car in the 1987 outback race helped it develop its Impact electric car prototype. Showing off the battery-powered Impact in the United States in January, GM said it would study the feasibility of mass producing the vehicle within five years.
"These kinds of events push the technology to the edge. They provide the impetus for advances," said Mark McInnes, an engineer at GM's Australian unit, General Motors Holden Automotive Ltd. "Impact would not have appeared if it hadn't been for the race."
The Impact has a top speed of 160 km/h, goes from standstill to 100 km/h in eight seconds and can travel more than 180 km without recharging, GM says. GM's cockroach-like Sunraycer car won the 1987 event almost a day ahead of its nearest rival in a 14- strong flotilla.
Its record is one some competitors doubt will be broken in 1990.
"That's going to be unbeatable," said Professor Dean Patterson, whose Northern Territory University engineering team came fifth in 1987. Competing again this year, he expects the team's updated design to place them among the front-runners.
"These kinds of events push the technology to the edge. They provide the impetus for advances."
"They [GM] used gallium arsenide solar cells, leading-edge space technology that gave them a peak of 1,900 watts but cost US$1.5 million. We've got a design that I think will put us in the top pack and our silicon cells give us a top of 1,600 watts. Sheer grunt [like that of the Sunraycer] is hard to beat," he added.
Analysts estimate the 1987 win cost GM between US$5-10 million, a price range GM does not quibble with. In this year's race GM will spread its money by funding six U.S. and Australian university groups.
Honda is working on a solar car with batteries supplied by Hokkaido-based Hoxan Corp, a chemical firm which has developed solar batteries since 1975. Hoxan, which will race its own vehicle, claims the world's most efficient solar battery with a solar energy to electricity conversion rate of 19.3 per cent.
Ford Motor Co, whose Ford Motor Co of Australia Ltd came in second in 1987, is not officially taking part, but a group of Ford engineers is modifying their 1987 car to be run by Brisbane-based Australian Energy Research Lab Pty Ltd.
Race organisers hope the 1990 race will show one possible way out of the energy quagmire.
Wilson da Silva is a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Sydney, Australia.