Imagine, if you will, no gas bills . . . forever. As the price of gasoline climbs from $4 per gallon to the stratosphere and your neighbors begin to wince and moan, imagine no more gasoline bills. That is the promise of solar-powered cars, the first of which rolled off the production lines at the French carmaker Venturi in January of this year.
With Venturi's Astrolab, solar cars have moved beyond the plaything of engineering students and tech geeks into the hands of ordinary consumers.
The manufacturer claims the two-seater Astrolab can reach top cruising speeds of 75 mph and has a potential driving range of 68 miles. Along with no gas bills, the car aims at the simple but revolutionary math of zero fossil fuel consumption and zero carbon dioxide emissions. That is news to make the heart of the tightwad or the environmentalist grow warm.
The car works by combining four key pieces of technology: an ultra-light auto body constructed from carbon monocoque, a sleek aerodynamic shape to minimize wind resistance, photovoltaic cells coated by a film of nano-prisms to concentrate solar energy, and rechargeable NiMH batteries. The price tag for this technological wonder? Approximate manufactures' suggested retail price is a cool $117,000.
Now don't let that price tag stop you from signing your John Hancock on those loan papers.
Suppose, instead, you are a normal American car driver and have plunked down $50,000 for your new BMW. The average passenger car, says the government's Environmental Protection Agency, travels 12,500 miles a year and gets 21.5 miles per gallon (mpg). It burns up 581 gallons, which at $4 per gallon would cost $2,324 a year. Assuming prices stay flat (an assumption that is highly unlikely of course), it would take 29 years for the Venturi Astrolab car to break even with your gas guzzler.
But as we all know, gasoline prices are out of control, and the cost of prototype automobiles can plummet as the technology is perfected and demand skyrockets. It is likely that the 'payback' period of the solar car will be far shorter. No word, yet, on the life expectancy of the solar car, which, of course, could greatly influence the 'payback' period. Since there is no combustion engine to wear out, it is likely that the solar cars will have a longer life span, but that has yet to be proven. Numbers aside, some are attracted to the technology because of the bragging rights and satisfaction to be gained by being the first in the neighborhood to drive around the block without paying one thin dime for gas.
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