Americanization of the SolarTaxi
By Bill Moore
What are the odds that just when Louis Palmer and Frank Loacker find themselves on the brink of disaster that a passerby would stop to help and just happen to not only have a keen interest in EVs but also would know the best aluminum welder in town?
Louis Palmer set off over a year ago from his native Lausanne in his two-place, solar-powered three-wheeler. His journey would take him through 28 countries from Europe to the Middle East to Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
By the time he and Loacker reached Omaha, Nebraska the car had amassed some 49,000 kilometers (10,000 in testing in Switzerland). The aluminum car, built by volunteers from four universities, had endured some of the roughest roads in the world, including the notorious potholes of Laos, subjecting it to metal-stressing fatigue. The rear drive wheel had been repaired at least four times, but this time something totally unexpected nearly ended the venture.
The SolarTaxi consists of both the car and its solar trailer producing some 700 watts of power that provides about 50% of the car's energy needs, feeding the current to the twin ZEBRA batteries, one mounted in the nose of the car and the second above the trailer axle. The rest of the car's energy come from the grid, which Palmer views as an international energy ATM of sorts. Solar panels back at his home in Lausanne feed the grid with the rest of the energy the aluminum frame car uses.
On the drive across Nebraska from Denver, Palmer reported noticing a secondary jerk moments after he stopped the car. After holding a press conference in west central Omaha, he and Loacker set off headed east on Center Street. Between 72nd and 60th, he decided to pull over and figure out what was the source of the "jerk." It was then he discovered that the bracket holding the trailer hitch was ready to break away from the aluminum box tubing that makes up the frame. The tubing had slip with metal fatigue. It is doubtful the SolarTaxi would have reached Des Moines, their overnight destination some 120 miles east.
In one of those strange twists of fate, Mike Kmiecik, a retired school teacher with business interests in racing -- he and his partner provide bodies and panels for several SCCA competition classes -- spotted the SolarTaxi on Center Street and decided to followed it, arriving on the scene just as Palmer and Loacker -- who acts as the team's mechanic -- had discovered the dangerous fatigue cracks.
While Kmiecik was following the Swiss team, I was on the telephone trying to reach the team, who had originally planned to drive across Kansas instead of through Omaha. Alerted by my brother, who had also spotted the car on Center, I was urgently trying to reach the team before they left town. Just as I was on the phone to Switzerland, Palmer called my mobile number to alert me to his problem, putting Kmiecik on the telephone, who gave me the name of the shop. I grabbed my camera and video gear and with my nephew, who is interning with me this summer, we jumped in the Insight and headed to Jimmy Judd's Performance Welding and Fabrication, guided by my now trusty Garmin GPS.
We arrived just as the team was pulling the car into Judd's welding shop. It was there we'd spend the next five hours, while Judd worked his magic, courtesy of a custom TIG welder originally designed for NASA. Judd not only repaired the broken aluminum, adding strengthening gussets, but he also offered to add a rear wheel fender, custom shaping it from sheet aluminum. He finished the job with a polished aluminum mounting plate similar to what you'd see on those big American over-the-road rigs.
Palmer commented that now the SolarTaxi had the look of a Peterbilt truck, which delighted Judd and Kmiecik, who noted that the welder and race car driver had added a touch of Americana to the first solar-powered vehicle to encircle the planet in terms of total miles traveled. They still have to reach the East Coast (they are in Chicago today, the three-quarters point of their journey) and from there the car will be shipped to Morocco. After a few days in North America, they will travel up through Spain, reaching home by early December.
The below slide show are some of the photos from the stop-over in Omaha, where the team spent the night in Papillion with my wife and I, recharging the car from the same 220 volt dryer outlet that Greg Hanssen had used many years ago in his own record setting drive from LA to Detroit in the GM EV1 electric car.
It's not often that we get to take part in a piece of motoring history, but it seems fate determined we would in the case of the Louis Palmer, Frank Loacker and their SolarTaxi.
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