By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/5/2005 2:56:47 PM ET 2005-08-05T18:56:47

I failed the first test of any wannabe solar race car driver: being able to jump out of the car in 10 seconds or less — a required precaution in case of a crash.

The failed attempt was part of a test drive courtesy of the U.C. Berkeley team at the end of the North American Solar Challenge last month. And while I didn't make the team, the drive was a chance to test a vehicle free of polluting fossil fuel.

It took some convincing, including a lobby effort from team sponsor Hybrid Technologies, but team leader Greg Thorne made the test drive happen after running through a few basics: Don't step on the body panel when getting in, watch out for cables and remember to twist your legs to get them under the safety bars.

Easier said than done. Getting behind the driver's seat required several contortions. In fact, it’s more like a driver’s bed because instead of sitting, you have to squeeze into a reclined position.

A feeling of being strapped to a gurney quickly gave way to one of claustrophobia when the top half of the car was clamped onto the bottom half. Sliding the two locks into place only reinforced the fact that I was sealing myself in.

The discomfort didn't stop me from wanting to drive the Beam Machine, as Berkeley’s car is called, at least for a few minutes.

First impressions: there was no steering wheel to hold onto; instead the driver uses left- and right-side joysticks.

Ditto for power steering. Built to be light, and thus conserve energy, the Beam Machine and other solar race cars don't come with that feature, which means the vehicles don't have much of a turning radius.

Hitting the pedal didn't rev an engine since the car is an electric vehicle, but it did set off a clicking sound from the car's electric motor, which provides extra horsepower from the car's batteries.

That sound is standard in solar cars at low speeds — and I was only doing 5 mph.

As I cruised along, I wondered if I’d be cut out to drive the car for six hours straight at 65 mph. A quick reality check of my tight surroundings and the answer was, “No, I don't think so.”

It was hard to think beyond that immediate reality, but once the drive ended and the top half of the Beam Machine was lifted off, it hit me: The sun’s rays had been driving a vehicle powered completely by solar energy.

That was even more refreshing than the welcome first gush of air that rolled across the racer as I struggled to get out.

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