Mad Dog: the car that fills up with sunshine

Nicholas Schoon drives the British-built vehicle of the future where the fuel is free
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I have driven the future and it works - although I wouldn't like to try it in rush hour traffic, and I couldn't take the family on holiday in it.

Mad Dog is a British solar-powered car which has raced across Australia. It will be a star exhibit at the first World Sustainable Energy Trade Fair in Amsterdam next month.

It was built by engineering students and lecturers at the South Bank University, in London, at a cost of pounds 20,000. The car is quite a contrast to the sleek, no-expense-spared Honda vehicle which easily won the trans- Australia World Solar Change last October and now features in a lavish advertising campaign on posters and television.

The Japanese car giant says its solar motor, the Dream, would cost pounds 800,000 to buy - but the total costs of design, construction and taking part in the race are thought to be well over pounds 1m. A team of more than 100 mechanics, technicians, engineers and public relations people fussed over it.

Mad Dog managed with a team of just five, the smallest among the 46 squads participating in the World Solar Challenge race. Simplicity, robust- ness and cheapness, along with the minimum possible weight, are the car's attributes. It glides along on three ordinary mountain bike wheels, with a large table top of solar cells stretching out behind its tiny cockpit.

I was privileged to take the car for a spin along a quiet street behind the university's student union. You clamber in, then snuggle down into a low-slung seat. The compact steering wheel looks like an aircraft control column, and a ``bubble'' can-opy of tinted transparent plastic is lowered over your head. It's a bit like being in a glider.

Flick the master switch, slide forward the hand throttle, lift your foot off the brake and off you go. The steering is a bit stiff and the motor is silent; all you hear is a quiet rumble of wheels.

Mad Dog boasts brisk acceleration and a top speed of 65 kmph. Its average speed during the 1,870-mile World Solar Challenge Race from Darwin to Adelaide last October was a leisurely 36kmph, compared with Honda's 90 kmph.

South Bank University's vehicle came 32nd but completed the course - unlike several other entrants. It is only the second British car to finish in the four trans-Australia races to date.

There were some surprises Down Under. Moments after the start, a large dog bounded out of the crowd of onlookers and Mad Dog hit it. Neither animal nor car suffered any serious harm. The weather also misbehaved by raining heavily and water poured into the car. The team had to drill holes in the bottom to let it trickle out.

Like all the other cars participating, it has some battery storage. Early in the morning, with the sun low in the sky and weak, the stored electricity helps to turn its single high efficiency electric motor. But under the midday sun, Mad Dog's BP solar cells provide enough power to drive the car and recharge the batteries. Then, as it sinks and its strength fades, the batteries are needed once more to supplement the fading solar-generated electricity.

You could keep the car going on sunshine through the British summer if you did not drive all day. But you'd put it away for the winter. It has brake lights and indicators but no headlights since sustained night drives are impossible.

Just one kilowatt - enough electrical power for a one-bar electric heater - can keep Mad Dog moving at 50 kmph. This is mainly because of its streamlined shape and lightweight composition. The chassis and skin are made of a "sandwich" material - two thin layers of carbon fibre enclosing a PVC foam filling. It has no structural steel.

Engineering lecturer Mike Duke said they had used mostly British components and plan-ned to enter a revamped, more efficient version for the next race. His colleague, Nigel Burgess, uses the project to teach students about stress ana-lysis. ``It's a means of introducing them to this kind of technology - lightweight, with high efficiency - which is going to become more and more important,'' he said. ``It's a bit like building a microlight aircraft.''

No car manufacturer, not even Honda, has any plans as yet to mass produce a solar car - although as technology advances they may be viable in the tropics within a couple of decades.

But the development of exotic one-offs for the Australian race, which takes place every three years, should advance techniques for making cars lighter, more efficient and less polluting. Electric cars and hybrid electric/petrol engine vehicles are now close to com- mercial viability.

Steam car: Steam cars offered serious competition to those with internal combustion engines until the 1920s. They burned petrol which generated steam in a boiler, but you had to raise the pressure before you could switch them on.

Extreme miles per gallon car: Every year, strange vehicles compete in the Shell Mileage Marathon to find which can go furthest with a small quantity of petrol. Last year, it was won by a Honda-backed machine which did the equivalent of 5,348 miles per gallon.

Electric car: General Motors' sporty EV1 is the world's first commerical electric car. It went on sale in southern California and Arizona last December. Top speed is 145 kmph, with a maximum range between recharges of 150 km.