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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The $250,000 Solar Car of the Future

Is The $250,000 Sunhawk the Solar Car of the Future?

This is part of a Forbes online conversation debating the practicality, performance and appeal of cars that run on diesel, electricity, natural gasand other non-gasoline fuels. (Entries include a Chevrolet VoltNissan LeafHonda CR-ZHonda Civic GX, and a Volkswagen Golf TDI that runs on French Fry oil.) Please weigh in with your own comments, arguments and enlightenment.
Matthew de Paula and I recently drove upstate to test a solar-powered car made by the SUNY Solar Car Racing Team. I loved the car so much I’m thinking of buying one for myself–just as soon as I can find a place to park it.*
Here are the specs:

Forbes Images
Car: Named Judy Sunhawk, in honor of a favorite secretary at SUNY New Paltz.
Cost: $250,000
Weight: 550 pounds
Fuel: Sunlight captured by hundreds of SunPower C-50 silicon solar cells
Batteries: K2 Energy Lithium Iron Phosphate
Hours to charge: 4
Motor: NuGen Mobility SCM150 96-Volt
Transmission: One fixed gear.
Suspension: Better than, say, a Smart Fortwo.
Top speed: 70 mph officially, though with a good tailwind and a smooth road it’ll do 90 mph.
Body: The top shell consists of Kevlar and Nomex layered together; the bottom shell is made of carbon fiber and Nomex layers. MIT’s Solar Electric Vehicle Team donated the body mold.
Claim to fame: Placed 8th out of 17 cars in the 2010 American Solar Challenge, a 1,200-mile road race following Route 66 from Tulsa, Okla., to Chicago.
Why you’ve got to be the size of a second-string college basketball player to drive it: You’ve got to be tall, because those pedals are pushed waaay up in the front. And you’ve got to be narrow, because the metal cage inside isn’t exactly built for the wide-shouldered set.
Why it’s not for loners: The thing’s impossible to get into or out of without three guys to hold it in place, one to help you step inside, and one to batten down the hatch once you get in. See below.

The scoop: I was slightly apprehensive on the way to New Paltz. Professor Mike Otis, who is the adviser for the solar car team, had mentioned that the vehicle was in complete disarray and the group would need some time to reassemble it. I imagined college students giving up their spring break to rebuild a pet project only for Matthew and me to get up there and discover it wasn’t actually all that great or, even worse, simply not exciting enough for us to write about.
I needn’t have worried. This manta-ray glider was fast, fun and easy to drive.

Forbes Images
The Sunhawk is street legal (registered as a motorcycle because of its three wheels) and can hold its own on neighborhood streets, though I wouldn’t take it on the freeway. We didn’t test 0-60 mph times, but suffice it to say the Sunhawk isn’t a exactly a sprinter.
Inside at least the car does sound like a racer. It’s fairly loud–a sort of warbled gurgling motor sound–with decent suspension and abrupt-but-adequate braking. In my red webbed harness and crash helmet, I certainly felt ready to get on the track while I was driving it.
The Sunhawk handles much as you’d expect from a car without power steering; Professor Otis had warned me about taking corners carefully, so I perfected the skill of gliding through turns.
Visibility was poor. There are no rear windows or rear view mirrors on the Sunhawk, and the fact that you have to half-recline in order to reach the pedals makes for limited views on each side. As for creature comforts like power windows and satellite radio? Let’s just say the only music you’ll need in this baby is the sound of the road.
Here’s some driving footage:
Otis and his students are convinced that solar-powered electric cars will dominate the American auto market within 50 years time. Indeed, a lot of the engineers on this solar car team are planning their careers based on that assumption.
Another true believer is Vincent Cozzolino, the founder of The Solar Energy Consortium, a non-profit group working on photovoltaic innovation that has partnered with SUNY to make the car. Cozzolino says even natural gas, which is cheap and plentiful in the United States, ultimately can’t compete with solar-powered electricity.
Have a look. (That’s Otis on the left, Cozzolino on the right.)
What do you think: Will solar energy ever be viable as power for personal transportation in America? Who has the responsibility to provide the impetus for building sun-powered cars and infrastructure–the government, consumers or automakers?

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