The green mile: Sustainable racing

By Peter Pudney 10 February 2010
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When it comes to transportation, green options are available, but people still aren’t choosing eco over muscle, writes Dr Peter Pudney.

Thirty-odd years ago, a very famous Muppet said that “it’s not easy bein’ green.” And while we’ve come a long way since the 1970s, Kermit’s words still ring true today.

Green, it seems, is still considered an option, rather than a way of life. As we move into a new decade, ‘green’ is often considered to be ‘inferior’ or, perhaps most significantly, ‘expensive’.

While we can change our manufacturing practices and technology so that they are kinder to our planet, it is much more difficult to change the thought processes around what is ‘necessary’ in our daily lives.

Actually, greening your household electricity use is not difficult – you simply ask your supplier for GreenPower. It currently costs more than electricity generated from fossil fuels, but for every unit of electricity you use, that amount of renewable energy is fed into the electricity grid.

Perhaps one of the most resistant areas to change is in transportation. Over the past 60 years, the number of cars per household has risen significantly, while the number of people using public transport has rapidly declined.

Going backwards

When it comes to cars, we’ve gone backwards. Electric cars were common in the late nineteenth century, but died out as gasoline fuelled models reached mass production and became a much cheaper, more powerful option.

We’ve witnessed the emergence of fuel guzzling, carbon emitting mean machines. The car du jour is big, heavy, powerful, and can travel long distances without stopping.

For the motor industry, a ‘green’ option seems to be particularly difficult.

Most of the time, we use our cars to travel short distances in slow city traffic with only one or two occupants. But we do it in cars that are capable of carrying four or five people across a continent at 100 km/h or more, and towing a boat or caravan at the same time.

Using tonnes of noisy, complicated machinery to move one or two people comfortably and safely around a city isn’t sensible, particularly when you consider that city-goers rarely travel more that 100 km per day.

Automotive companies are developing a number of electric versions of conventional cars in foreign markets. Mitsubishi has the i-MiEV, Nissan have the Leaf, Hyundai have the i10 Electric, just to name a few. Then, of course, there are the hybrids – like the Toyota Prius and GM Volt – that use a combination of electric and petrol power.

It’s obvious that people are starting to recognise the benefits of an electric car. Many people are paying tens of thousands of dollars to convert conventional cars to electric.

Shift in thinking

Soon, manufacturers will begin selling purely electric cars in the Australian market. If these electric cars are powered using renewable energy, they will offer a means of transportation without CO2 emissions. But they are still large, heavy and powerful cars that use large amounts of energy.

What is required is a shift in thinking – we shouldn’t take a conventional car and make it green, but take a clean, low energy vehicle – like a solar racing car – and make it practical.

A few years ago, a group of staff and students at the University of South Australia did just that. Trev (Two Seater Renewable Energy Vehicle) is a bright green electric car that can travel at speeds up to 120 km/h and weighs less than 350 kg.

Trev has a three-wheeled design with a tandem seating layout, to give good aerodynamics and balance. There’s a single door and the single rear wheel drive simplifies the suspension and transmission. Trev’s electric motor offers smooth, quiet acceleration from 0-100 km/h in about 10 seconds.

With petrol prices hovering well above a dollar a litre, Trev’s running cost of about one cent per kilometre becomes a pretty attractive option.

And if you think that Trev isn’t capable of more than a quick promo loop around the block, in 2007 Trev was driven 3000 km across Australia and in June this year, a group of volunteers will drive Trev 30,000 km around the globe. It will take 80 days of driving and cost a mere $400 in renewable energy.

Zero Race

The car is the Australian entrant into the Zero Race, a zero emissions race around the world conceived by Swiss humanitarian and eco-transport advocate, Louis Palmer

Zero Race has attracted worldwide attention – teams from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, New Zealand, China, Germany and Canada among others will race through 20 countries in vehicles powered only by renewable geothermal, solar or wind-generated energy.

Advocates of green transport believe that the global support of Zero Race is proof that the world is ready to embrace an alternative transport option. It is also proof that ‘green’ cars are a real form of transport and not just an idea.

We believe Trev represents Australia’s message to the world that we, too, are committed to taking action to protect our natural resources.

Trev’s current 45 kg lithium polymer battery allows it to travel more than 100 km without stopping, but we will upgrade this to an 85 kg version so that Trev can drive up to 500 km per day with only one stop. Even with the added weight, Trev will still be under 350 kg and a two year old would still be capable of pushing  it along (as we demonstrated a couple of years ago).

Trev is simple enough that it can be built without the need for high cost mass production. With that in mind, our vision is that a like-minded commercial company can one day make Trev a household name.

For now, Trev is squaring its shoulders as it prepares to represent Australia in Zero Race. The race will be the longest race Trev has ever entered and modifications will need to be made.

Team Trev, a group of Adelaide based volunteers, will be busy preparing Trev over the next six months. Technical, financial and logistical problems will need to be solved to make Team Trev’s dream a reality.

We’re actively seeking sponsors and benefactors to get Trev to Shanghai and take Australia’s commitment to climate change to a world stage.

It will be a busy six months for volunteers, but we need to show the world that there are alternatives to the massive machines we currently use to achieve personal mobility. And while the effort is high, there is no greater reward than being a part of an event that might just change transportation as we know it.

Kermit was right – being green isn’t easy, but it sure does feel good. More details at the Team Trev website.

Dr Peter Pudney is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of South Australia.