PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When the “Tour de Sol” started in 1989, its message of fuel efficiency fell largely on deaf ears.
Gas was cheap, alternative-fuel vehicles weren’t available to the general public, and the ones being designed looked more like space ships than cars. It was mostly engineering buffs who came to see the annual parade of student-designed vehicles.
Things have changed considerably now that gas prices are soaring and average folks are paying more attention to the energy-efficient vehicles traveling through the Northeast this week for the tour, now called the Great American Green Transportation Festival.
Several automakers have also joined the tour this year, and a few have alternative vehicles already on the road.
Honda’s Insight, a gasoline-electric hybrid, gets 70 miles to the gallon compared to the average 24.5 miles for 2001 models, and Toyota’s Prius, also a hybrid electric, gets about 50 miles per gallon.
Darryl Dowty, a professor whose Central Connecticut State University students created a truck and motorbike powered by batteries, solar energy and propane, said he’s pleased to see the automakers involved.
“That’s our job, to get people who do this for a living to build these things,” Dowty said.
Other vehicles in the tour run on various combinations including solar power, battery power, ethanol and hydrogen. The Department of Energy is sponsoring a separate cross-country race for solar cars, the American Solar Challenge, in July.
Organizers and participants say the green tour, which finishes in Boston on Saturday, is about teaching the public and cultivating a new generation of fuel efficiency engineers.
The technology is so young even the big carmakers need all the new ideas they can get, said Honda spokesman Michael Tebo.
“What I see this year is much more diverse entrants,” Tebo said. “We’re in transition in terms of what the next big technology is going to be, and these guys are trying all sorts of different things.”
Among the 50 entries are a two-seat electric car that can reach 90 miles per hour and an assortment of neighborhood vehicles that could be used for short trips at lower speeds. The entries come from high schools, colleges and companies.
Some vehicles still have the space ship look, with a solar “sail” or an odd aerodynamic shape, but increasingly the vehicles look like average cars.
That’s important to Rita Dorgan, a local resident who visited the festival this week in Pittsfield.
“Now with this gas problem that seems to be a perennial thing, we’re now considering a more efficient vehicle,” she said.
This year’s tour began just after President Bush unveiled his new energy plan, which calls for $4 million in tax credits to spur sales of hybrid gas-electric vehicles.
Environmentalists have been cool to the plan, saying it emphasizes increasing energy supplies over conservation.
Despite the progress in design and bringing down cost, widespread use of vehicles that run on electricity and fuels other than gasoline is still years away. Cost and range are factors, though the Insight is down to about $19,000, and alternative fuels aren’t always widely available.
Organizer Mary Hazard, of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, said such concerns are valid, but she points to progress made in the 12 years since the tour began.
“The quality of the vehicles is light years beyond the quality of what we saw in the beginning,” she said.
On the Net:
American Solar Challenge: http://www.formulasun.org/asc/