An inventor prepares his solar vehicle for a transcontinental race, hoping to win a $2.5 million payday.
Larry Wexler dreams of one day driving from New York to Los Angeles in a car race and never stopping for gas. The car he plans to drive runs on sunshine and money, but only one of those two commodities is in abundant supply.
Wexler has a lot riding on his dream, which in reality has cost him his retirement savings and the interior landscape business he sold so he could work full time on the XLR8SUN. It’s a three-wheeled, solar-panel-covered car that looks like a poor man’s version of Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. The XLR8SUN comes equipped with gull-wing doors, which get stuck, and has a bare interior crammed with wires, gauges, switches (one labeled “emergency”) and a fire extinguisher. Air-conditioning is not included.
With his beanpole build, unkempt head of curly hair and wire-rim spectacles, the 55-year old resident of Lockhart (in northwest Orange County) cuts the figure of an eccentric scientist. He hopes his vehicle can take us light years ahead in adapting clean technology to car travel—and make him a cool $2.5 million, too. He paid a $5,000 entry fee to compete for the Progressive Auto X Prize, for which teams design vehicles that will get more than 100 miles per gallon in a race from New York to Los Angeles. His vehicle is one of 56 to make it into the X Prize’s alternative category. The race is set for next year and carries a $10 million purse, to be shared among the winners of various categories.
His three-wheeled “solarcycle” weighs in at 1,000 pounds and uses photovoltaic solar panels to convert the sun’s energy for lead-acid batteries. Wexler says it can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and runs at a consistent 35 mph as long as the sun is out. The batteries take eight hours to charge—either by the sun or a plug-in charging station. It’s street-legal and considered a motorcycle by the state and insurers.
To compete with teams sponsored by universities and corporations, Wexler needs industrial-level parts, expert help and, especially, investors. He wants to switch to lithium batteries and buy more efficient solar cells. He says he needs at least $20,000 to upgrade the car, which he has been working on for 11 years.
“It’s hard building the car by yourself with off-the-shelf parts,” says Wexler. So to lure those investors, he says he needs to create some buzz. How would he do that?
By driving on Interstate 4.
Presumably, he’s not dreaming when he says that.