Wind power electric car completes 5,000-km Australia journey

“Everybody stops, everybody looks,” Dirk Gion says of the sporty two-seater he and fellow German adventurer Stefan Simmerer have just driven across Australia. “You take a Lamborghini or a Ferrari and paint it pink with green dots and drive it naked, you couldn’t get more attention than driving this electric car.”

And, sure enough, at the Sydney Harbour Bridge finishing line of their 18-day journey, people gather to paw the open-topped roadster and ask the obvious question: What makes it go? The answer peeps from the back like the tailpipe of a cartoon rocket ship: a bamboo windmill mast the pair took out and erected every 400 kilometers or so to generate the power to recharge the four lithium-ion batteries underneath the bonnet.

The 5,000-kilometer coast-to-coast trip used up the equivalent of US$25 worth of electricity. “Everybody liked the idea,” Gion said. “People are so ready for this technology. They want to have it and to use it. There’s so much acceptance.”

Gion and Simmerer are the first to cross Australia in a wind-powered car. They also set records for the longest distance traveled in a wind power car in a 36-hour period and the longest distance covered in a wind power car.

People are intrigued but most would want a bit more ease in their transcontinental travel. To keep the weight down to 200 kilograms including the windmill, the vehicle is as spartan and uncomfortable as an F1 racing car.

No protection from the sun and the rain, no entertainment, no air-conditioning and no reverse gear. The only instrument aboard is a voltmeter. As well as recharging the batteries with the turbine, a similar 8-hour charge can be got direct from the electricity grid.

“Everything except the batteries can be bought in a bicycle shop,” Gion said. Steering is courtesy of a mountain-bike style handlebar rather than a steering wheel. To reverse, simply put your hand over the side and maneuver the vehicle as you would a wheelchair.

All aspects of propulsion are about performance. Even down to a tire compound that reduced the rolling resistance of normal bicycle tires by 10 percent. The big item, of course, is the battery pack. The four batteries weigh in at 80 kilograms and they are state-of-the-art. The cruising speed for the Wind Explorer is around 50 kph – although the passenger can deploy a kite when the winds are right and get tugged along at speeds over 70 kph.

It was by letting fly with the kite that the Wind Explorer managed 492 km in a single day. “We had the electricity from the wind, we had the electricity from the grid and we also had the kite,” Gion said. “I think that’s the way to go with renewable technologies in that you mix them. You’ve different ways of using natural energy.”

It is a principle already adopted in hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, which combine battery power with conventional internal combustion engines. Ideally, the Wind Explorer would be equipped with solar panels so that recharging could come from both the power of the wind and the sun. And, ideally, it would not need to be followed by a support vehicle as it was on the trek across Australia.

Gion is a big fan of wind power. In 2004 he used what resembled a skateboard harnessed to a kite to get from Adelaide to Darwin in the far north of the continent. A trip of almost 3,000 km, it was accomplished without any other energy than that provided for free by the prevailing winds. “Wind power has much more power than solar power,” Gion said. “If you set up the windmill in a good wind, you recharge much faster.”

To make sure the team had the best of the wind, the route from Albany hugged the south coast where the sea breezes provide a constant force to drive the windmill. It was also necessary to plan stops where the turbine would work the best.

The Wind Explorer, in contrast to the solar powered vehicles that regularly race in the flat and sunny Outback, looks like a conventional car. With a bit of work, it could be made bigger and more comfortable.

A swanky version would not set any records, but it would be more attractive to the average motorist. “It’s not like an experimental car,” Gion explained. “It’s like an open roadster. You can cruise in traffic. You sit like you would normally sit and you can see traffic around you.”