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Stanford-organized solar car race zig-zags across state

STANFORD -- A fleet of solar-powered cars raced into the Stanford University Oval on Tuesday, June 18, on the first leg of the California Clean Air Race -- the state's first major solar-powered vehicle race.

Solar vehicles representing five college teams left Cal State- Sacramento on Tuesday morning at the start of a six-day, 670-mile race to Los Angeles. They reached Stanford via Vallejo, the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge, a foggy San Francisco and Highway 280.

They were led across the first-day finish line by the Western Washington University's Viking XX, a sleek car under a slanted array of solar cells like a roof of shiny blue tile. The Viking, which reached Stanford with an elapsed driving time of 4 hours, 27 minutes, placed fifth internationally in the World Solar Challenge in Australia last November.

Texas Native Sun, the silvery, waterbug-shaped entry of the University of Texas at Austin, was temporarily delayed on the road by a California Highway Patrol officer who had not been informed of CHP's official agreement to assist the race. The Texas car nevertheless placed second in elapsed driving time for the first leg of the race. Sun Luis, the entry of California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, placed third.

Stanford's entry, SUnSUrfer, and Sol of Auburn, the entry of Auburn University in Alabama, suffered breakdowns and had to be trucked to Stanford. They will continue the race with penalty time added to their elapsed time scores.

The cars are powered by the sun, but the race itself is powered by the organization and dedication of college students. It started with the Stanford Solar Car Project, a loose collection of 40 or so students who have so far built two solar cars with a little faculty advice and a lot of hard work. Graduate student Dave Caditz spearheaded the idea of a race that would zig-zag across California and inspire the public's interest in alternative-powered vehicles.

Volunteers at Stanford were joined by students from the San Luis Project at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and the California State University-Fresno Solar-Powered Vehicle Project.

The work has been 10 hours a day, seven days a week for three months, Caditz said, but the goal is worth it.

"We're trying to make the public aware that this clean transportation technology exists and it's available today," he said. "We want to get big manufacturers involved in making the technology people want."

Professor Bob Kinchloe, who was faculty adviser for Stanford's entry in the Florida-to-Michigan Sunrayce last year, said, "some of the students have been stretching themselves to the limit, but they're learning a tremendous amount, not only about the cars but about organization, working as a team."

He said they had managed to get major utilities and government agencies excited about a race for clean air. They enlisted sponsorship from the California Air Resources Board, California Energy Commission, California Museum of Science and Industry, California Solar Energy Industries Association, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

The result is a race that will continue from Stanford to sponsoring universities at Fresno and San Luis Obispo, then on to the University of California-Santa Barbara and California State University-Northridge. The final leg of the race will be a dash on Sunday, June 23, to the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles for a Sun Day festival of solar technologies.

The Stanford Solar Car Project's partly-finished new car, a radical departure in solar car design, was displayed at the Oval Tuesday. The car, named SUnburner, uses an 18-foot parabolic mirror to concentrate light on an array of super-efficient solar cells designed by Stanford professor Richard Swanson. SUnburner, being built by a team of students led by Mechanical Engineering major Alex Tilson, is expected to be ready to race later in the year.

On the last two legs of the race, solar cars will be joined by a fleet of electric powered commute cars. The California Clean Air Act requires that in 1998, 2% of vehicles sold annually in the state must have zero emissions; by 2003, the requirement goes up to 10%. These electric- powered cars -- including some from major automakers, like General Motors' electric "Impact" -- presage the future of America's largest auto- using region.

According to Frank Chen of the Stanford Solar Car Project, solar racers may be a long way from practical commute cars, but solar technology will be a part of the electric cars of the future. Already, GM's car uses design ideas learned from the GM-sponsored 1990 "Sunrayce" of solar vehicles from Florida to Michigan.

And for the present, Chen said, "Solar cars help convince the public that there are alternatives to the automobile."

After an early-morning charge of their solar batteries, the silent racers of the future will take off Wednesday for the sun-drenched Central Valley and the second leg of their race.



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