Even as U.S. oil refiners scramble to increase the flow of Canadian crude from Alberta to Texas, a caravan of futuristic solar cars is racing that 2,400-mile route in reverse to show what transportation could look without a drop of oil or gas.
The sleek solar-powered sports cars competing in the North American Solar Challenge always turn heads, but with price tags that can climb well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, don't expect to see them parked in your local car dealer lot anytime soon.
"I don't think so," said Daniel Uhlord, a member of the SolarWorld 1 team from Hochschule Bochum University in Germany. "They're not quite up for the challenge of everyday life."
But solar could still play a significant role in a future transportation society less dependent on oil.
Uhlord and others envision an electric "solar assisted" car with cell-phone-like batteries that charge in the morning sun while you sip your coffee, then recharge in a parking lot while you toil away at work.
The cars racing to Canada this week are essentially electric cars — albeit super-efficient versions that tap into the power of the sun, said race director Dan Eberle.
The state-of-the-art technology found in their motors, batteries, control systems and electronics could one-day find their way into a hybrid or fully electric commuter vehicle.
"Instead of having solar panels on the car, you have a solar panel at home or a solar panel at work," Eberle said. "You drive in, plug in, charge it and then drive without carrying the solar panel along."
The North American Solar Challenge, last run in 2005, aims to promote solar and renewable technologies. The 15 race teams took off from Texas this past Sunday and are expected to arrive in Calgary on Tuesday.
SolarWorld 1, weighing in at 450 pounds at a cost of about $750,000, can cruise at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour, but racers are required to obey local traffic laws along the mostly rural route.
Each driver is escorted by a pair of pit-crew vans filled with engineers monitoring a cadre of statistics. Teams constantly work to improve the efficiency of the solar arrays, batteries, power converters and motors, but Uhlord said a solar car's most important aspect is its aerodynamics.
An iPod added
In preparation for last year's World Solar Challenge race across Australia, the German team had to decide on a small valve to inflate the front tire and whether to use a straight pin or one with an angle. That tiny detail made a difference of more than an hour in the team's final time, he said.
Cars use two-way radios to chat with their pit crews, and the German team added a small technological touch to keep drivers humming along.
"You can also hook up an iPod to it," Uhlord said. "It will dim out or fade out the music when you talk or somebody else talks and everything's integrated into the helmet."
Follow the race online at www.americansolarchallenge.org