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December 10, 2008

Solar taxi completes round-the-world trip

CARS - The first solar car to drive around the Earth completed its journey today. Swiss adventurer Louis Palmer drove the car 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers) around the globe without using a drop of oil, and picked up people along the way like a taxi.

Palmer has given a ride to approximately 1,000 people so far, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer.

Palmer rolled into the U.N. climate conference in his solar car as a man with a mission: To prove that the world can continue its love affair with the car without burning any polluting fossil fuels and still enjoy a smooth ride.

While some 11,000 delegates sought an ambitious new climate change deal to slash emissions of heat-trapping gases, Palmer was convinced that whatever they agreed upon won't be enough to avert environmental disaster. Delegates are seeking a new climate change treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and has required that 37 countries slash emissions of heat-trapping gases by an average 5 percent from 1990 levels. The goal is for the new treaty to be finalized at the next U.N. climate meeting in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"Here at the conference, we are talking about reducing emissions by 10 or 20 percent," Palmer said. "I want to show that we can reduce emissions by 100 percent€” and that's what we need for the future."

Palmer drove the fully solar-powered car built with the help of Swiss scientists through 38 countries. The two-seater travels up to 55 mph (90 kph).

The aluminum and fiberglass car is still a prototype, and is designed to be light and efficient, is powered by solar cells that it hauls on a trailer. It has plastic windows, three wheels instead of four and ironically, no climate control.

Designed like a race car, it can hold two people comfortably and has a radio. It meets all safety standards in Switzerland and has headlights, brakes, blinkers and other standard safety features. Before his world trip, Palmer, 36, used it for a year to commute to the school in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he taught.

Although he tried to avoid what he called "dinosaur technology," his steering wheel was from a Renault, his windshield wipers from a Fiat and his wheels were from a Smart car, the Daimler AG two-seater that is ubiquitous in many European cities.

After a summer that saw oil prices rise uncontrollably, many automakers — from the U.S. to Japan — are investing in research with the aim of producing alternatively powered cars using electricity, biofuel and even hydrogen. Environmental advocates hope these efforts will continue even as oil prices have dropped substantially.

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