Global electric race begins in Geneva

Plugs away: the Swiss-built Zerotracer sets off from the UN in Geneva Keystone

Electric vehicles have set off from Geneva on an epic 80-day race around the world that aims to be carbon emission-free.

This content was published on August 16, 2010 - 13:31

The Zero Race, organised by Swiss teacher Louis Palmer who in 2008 circumnavigated the globe in a solar taxi, is intended to also raise awareness about climate change, mobility and renewable energies.

“It’s hard to believe we’re setting off on such an adventure,” a nervous Nick Jones, driver of the Australian Team Trev three-wheel electric car, told swissinfo.ch. “Fingers crossed.”

The event attracted huge interest from the media with around 100 journalists there for the start of the race.

Four teams are taking part. The two-man teams from Australia, Germany and Switzerland fired up their electric vehicles at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva and inched silently down the “Aisle of Flags” leading to the Place des Nations on Monday afternoon.

The fourth team from South Korea will join the race in Lausanne.

The other teams drove through the city before opening their throttles or putting their feet down as they headed eastwards through Switzerland on the start of their 30,000-kilometre Jules Verne-inspired race, which will finish in Geneva again in January 2011.

On the way they will stop off in 150 cities including Brussels, Berlin, Moscow, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Cancun for the UN climate change meeting at the end of November.

Each vehicle will be charged from regular power outlets along the way. At the same time the teams are feeding electricity generated from solar and wind plants back home into the grid.

Palmer came up with the idea of the race after the overwhelmingly positive response he got from his 18-month tour through 38 countries in his solar-powered taxi, which ended in Root, canton Lucerne, in December 2008.

“Solar Taxi was such a huge success, reaching some 770 million people via the media. There was so much interest I thought I just have to do it again,” he explained. “Together we can show that this is the mobility of the future for a greener, safer planet.”

Achim Steiner, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Environment Programme, praised Palmer’s new initiative, which “underscores the importance of individual efforts in building a green, low carbon future in the world”.

Electric friends

The four teams participating in the Zero Race are people Palmer met during his last global trip who were already working on green vehicle projects.

“I’m really excited to be driving my own electric design around the world,” explained Tobias Wuelser, team leader for the Swiss Team Zerotracer.

It has taken the 32-year-old design engineer and his team from Winterthur five years to perfect their two-seater electric motorbike, installing new technology into the elongated chassis.

The SFr120,000 Zerotracer, which Wuelser claims is “the fastest electric motorbike in the world”, has a maximum speed of 240km/hour. The bike is powered by a 420-volt cobalt-lithium-magnesium battery that allows it to run for 350 km before recharging.

Reliability

One of its main competitors is likely to be the “Trev” (Two-seater Renewable Energy Vehicle), a 350kg, three-wheeled electric car built by students from Adelaide’s University of South Australia.

Although it is slower than the Zerotracer, with a maximum speed of 120km/h and a range of 250km, Jones is confident about his team’s chances.

“The trick with this race will be reliability and staying safe – it’s a long way,” he said.

The other vehicles taking part include a four-wheel electric car driven by a South Korean team supported by the company PowerPlaza, and a long-range electric motorbike ridden by the Vectrix Team from Berlin, Germany.

Potholes and hills

As organiser, Palmer will be accompanying the teams, together with a colleague, a film crew and a local guide in each country.

“This will be really important in Russia, China and Kazakhstan,” he explained. “Hopefully the fires in Russia will have calmed down when we get there in a month’s time.”

Wuelser, who has ridden motorbikes across Europe and Africa, said his major concern was potholes in Asia.

“The big test for me will be the one-month crossing of the Gobi Desert between Kazakhstan and China,” he added.

Jones, meanwhile, said he was more worried about the first stage through the Swiss Alps, which are “much steeper than the hills around Adelaide”, where he has been testing the Trev.

Green message

The Zero Race consists of long stages and a tight schedule, said Palmer: “During the solar taxi trip I covered 300km a day. Here we’ll be doing 500km.”

The race involves 80 days on the road and two months on the high seas, as the vehicles will be shipped between continents – a less polluting, cheaper alternative to airplanes.

The eventual winner will not be the first past the line back in Geneva, but the team with the most points earned from 80 different competitions during the race for things like performance, reliability, safety, usability, design and popularity, said Palmer.

But the main aim of the race is to pass on a message. Like his solar taxi tour, the new event aims to generate popular enthusiasm for renewable energy sources and to “shake up politicians and industry leaders” to show what is possible today in terms of electric vehicles and to get them to invest in new green technologies.

Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch

Zero Race criteria

Competing vehicles are required to:
- be propelled by an electric motor
- drive at least a 250km distance at an average speed equal or above 80km/h
- be able to reach a maximum distance of 500km per day, with a recharge stop of four hours during lunch time
- carry at least two passengers
- use renewable energy produced by solar panels, wind, wave and or geothermal sources in the team’s home country that is then fed into the power grid during the race and accessed via power sockets en route.

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A niche product

53 out of 266,000 (in round figures): this is the number of new electric vehicles compared with the total number of new cars sold in Switzerland in 2009. In 2008, it was 21 out of 288,000, in 2007 it was 19 out of 284,000 and in 2006, seven out of 269,000.

1.9%: this is the proportion of new cars with “alternative propulsion” sold in Switzerland in 2009. In this category, the importers include hybrids, cars that run on gas, those on bio-ethanol and electric vehicles. Of the remainder, two-thirds run on petrol and a third on diesel.

SFr30,000 ($27,940)-SFr60,000: this is the minimum price you have to pay for an electric car in Switzerland today. The majority are nothing more than conventional cars rebuilt with electric motors. Car makers say that when there is mass production of electric cars, there will be significant price reductions.

The trend towards greener cars has gathered pace since the European Union struck a makeshift deal last year to cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars, setting a 130g/km target in a phased approach starting in 2012, with full compliance in 2015.

The current EU-wide average is 158g/km, compared with 183g/km for Switzerland.

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