Google employees are fairly technology-minded, but even they were amazed by the strange car that appeared at the company's Mountain View headquarters Feb. 20, swarming around the vehicle and looking as though a UFO had landed.
"It's so space age, I love it," said one employee. "Where do you put the groceries?" joked another.
Google was just the latest stop for Xof1, a streamlined solar car on a record-breaking journey. It all started last June in Buffalo, N.Y., and took Canadian driver-creator Marcelo da Luz to the Arctic Circle before the car silently rolled into Mountain View last Friday 12,000 miles later.
Da Luz' moxie impressed the techies as much as anything. "You didn't know anybody at Google and you just showed up?" one asked. "Yeah," he answered.
Luckily, security guards did not carry da Luz and his $500,000 car off the Googleplex. Electric vehicle enthusiasts at the company, including Google founder Larry Page, were told about the car once da Luz arrived, although Page did not make an appearance on Friday.
Da Luz waited for a large crowd to gather before lifting the body up off the chassis and giving a talk about the car. It's a routine by now, as he's given the talk numerous times before, whenever people inevitably gather around. There was laughter when he told the crowd that while driving through Alaska, someone called 911 and reported seeing a UFO driving down the road.
The car took eight years to develop and cost $500,000, if you add labor costs to the $100,000 in materials and parts. Da Luz, a former flight attendant from Toronto, mortgaged his house to help pay for the project and recruited 47 volunteers, including Toronto area engineers, professors and college students, all of whom are listed on his Web site.
The car is capable of going 75 miles per hour, but da Luz says he rarely takes it on the freeway. "People don't see it," said John Schaeffer, a volunteer who has been driving the support van behind the car for the last three weeks. Da Luz relies completely on volunteers that he picks up along the way to drive the support van, which holds spare parts and other supplies.
Made mostly from fiberglass and carbon fiber, the car weighs just 660 pounds with da Luz inside. Its body is low and flat like a manta ray and shaped like a wing for a little bit of lift. Strong storm winds could pick up the car and toss it like a potato chip, and a few times during his journey, da Luz said, he had to take it off the road and put it in the van's trailer to weather out storms.
Because of its aerodynamic shape and efficient AC motor, the car can drive 136 miles in the dark using only 66 pounds of lithium ion batteries. The solar cells generate a 900-watt charge for the batteries, which is about what a toaster uses, da Luz says.
Sometimes a lack of sun for several days would slow the trip down. On his worst day, da Luz traveled four miles. On his best day, he went 292 miles.
Inside the car, da Luz lays flat on a seat custom-molded to his body. While it has no padding, da Luz says the seat is comfortable enough that he has found himself dozing off while driving. With his head poking up behind a small windshield, he looks through a camera display on his glasses to see behind him. At night, da Luz relies on an array of powerful LED lights, each no bigger than a pencil eraser, to light the road.
Police and highway patrol officers, not convinced that Xof1 is street-legal, have pulled da Luz over 11 times. In order to legally register the car, he moved to Barbados, the small island nation off the coast of Venezuela, where an obscure 1949 Geneva Convention treaty allows him to drive Xof1 anywhere in the world.
His favorite stories are about the people who have offered help along the way. In one instance, someone handed da Luz the keys to an empty house. As da Luz drove on 500 miles of gravel roads on the way to the Arctic Circle, truck drivers got on their radios to let other truckers know that they needed to slow down so as not to throw gravel at the fragile solar panels.
The car broke the original 9,364-mile distance record back in Victoria, B.C. But as the trip goes on, da Luz is perpetually increasing the distance record. His plan is to end the trip in Los Angeles, but if he can gather enough financial help, he may continue on to South America.
For more information about the project, visit www.xof1.com.