Swiss solartaxi generates some heat at N.Y.U. stop

By Albert Amateau

It was not the ideal day for a solar-powered auto — clouds and a sprinkle of rain. But by 1:15 p.m. last Friday, a tall, bearded man pulled up in a small, blue-and-white, three-wheeled vehicle hauling a large flatbed covered with solar panels.

About 30 people — students coming out of New York University’s Silver Building on Washington Square and assorted environmental well-wishers — were on hand to greet the traveler, who was 14-months into his team’s round-the-world drive to promote solar-powered cars.

“I’m not an engineer. I’m school teacher trying to change the minds of people,” said Louis Palmer, the Swiss teacher who has convinced people in several companies, mostly Swiss and German, to build the solartaxi and sponsor the tour that began in Lucerne, Switzerland, in July of last year.

The solar cells on the flatbed provide the electricity stored in two batteries that powers the vehicle. But Palmer said he could plug the little car into any electric grid overnight and store enough electricity for 200 miles.

“The taxi can go 55 miles per hour. But on the highway I usually do 40 miles per hour,” Palmer said.

“How does it run — how many breakdowns?” someone asked.

“The car runs like a Swiss clock,” he replied. “We lost only two days in breakdowns so far. There was a crack in the chassis one time, and a weld broke and we lost the trailer another time.”

The Sept. 12 stopover at N.Y.U. was on day six of an eight-day New York City visit — the longest stay in any city in the round-the-world drive.

“We were welcome everywhere,” Palmer said, recalling the trip so far. “Even Saudi Arabia welcomed us. They don’t give visas but they gave us special permission to drive across the country. China opened its heart to us. The only problem was with Japan — there was a problem about accepting Swiss driver’s licenses,” he said. When the team was in Bali last December, they met the crew of Greenpeace. “They gave us a ride to New Zealand,” Palmer said.

The solartaxi’s next port was Los Angeles, where Hollywood stars became fans.

“You know the show ‘Monk’ on cable? Tony Shalhoub? He drove the solartaxi. James Cameron, the director, came out of his house in Malibu and drove it,” Palmer said.

The team (six people and a support car) is planning to go on to Boston, Vermont and Montreal and about 12 more countries in Europe before finishing in Lucerne.

“There’s a climate-change conference in Poland next year, and I want to start from there next year,” said Palmer.

“The Swiss consulate was very enthusiastic about the solartaxi visit,” noted Jeremy Friedman, coordinator of the N.Y.U. Sustainability Program, who had invited Palmer to spend an hour on the campus.

Among the well-wishers was Roland Pabst, a Swiss who works at altPOWER, a provider of renewable energy systems based in Lower Manhattan. “He’s Swiss, I’m Swiss; he’s solar, I’m solar, so I’m here to meet him,” said Pabst, just before Palmer pulled up.

Marc Scheinman, a Pace University professor who monitors the auto industry, was impressed with Palmer’s enthusiasm.

“But I wouldn’t be too optimistic in the short run,” he said. “Toyota sold 182,000 hybrid cars last year out of 16.2 million total.”