Long journey ahead as green cars search for a place in the sun

Today, a single-seater wafer of a car powered by sunlight will be travelling from Chester to Carlisle. Taking turns at the wheel will be students from Cambridge University, which is using the vehicle as a prototype for an entry in the 2009 World Solar Challenge.

The Affinity is said to be the only road-legal solar-powered vehicle in Britain. Its 934-mile, end-to-end route is half the distance of the Darwin-to-Adelaide event next year.

It left Land's End on Sunday, with an early publicity stop at the Eden Centre, which has been hosting its Sexy Green Car Show. With a maximum speed of 50 to 60 miles an hour, and allowing for flag-waving visits to schools and city centres, and plenty of sun, the 100 percent eco-friendly car will arrive at John O'Groats on Saturday.

On Monday, piggy-backed on a transporter, it has a double date in York. It will be shown in the city centre and at Bootham School, where team member and old scholar Anthony Law will demonstrate it to staff

and pupils.

Anthony, from Thirsk, left Bootham in 2004 and is now a third-year engineering student at Cambridge. It is his generation that is going to take the brunt of global warming, energy shortages, food shortages, price hikes, you name it.

While another Yorkshireman, Jeremy Clarkson, espouses the freedom of this generation of motorists to use fuel almost as it wishes, and TV's Top Gear continues on its quest to use all the oil as quickly as possible in a speeding frenzy, Anthony Law takes the longer view.

"Road transport contributes more than 20 per cent of the UK's CO2 emissions, so developing sustainable alternatives to traditional cars is vital. Our solar-powered Affinity shows that sustainable transport can be glamorous – not only does Affinity have infinite range and zero emissions, but it also looks amazing."

One can imagine his pride at returning to the school that inspired him, with the car. He is also likely to emphasise the need to be engineers. "It's crucial that young people realise that engineering isn't all about spanners and greasy overalls, but that, even as a student, you can be developing new technologies that really are at the cutting-edge of what's currently possible," says Anthony, who will captain the university's Eco-Racing world challenge across the Australian Outback.

The journey is actually much further. These solar-fuelled expeditions are years away from the day when large numbers of us can have a

sun-powered vehicle. Then there is the public will. Look

how many houses do not have solar roof panels. They are not even a requirement for new buildings.

Most of the vehicles exhibited at the Eden Project's Sexy Green Car Show car were low-emission cars already on sale. There was a battery-powered Range Rover, yours for 95,000, which is an exemplar of man hanging on to image and sacrificing all-road functionality.

The Lotus Exige Tri-fuel was a demonstration of what sports car makers may have to do to hang on to customers. By mixing petrol and bioethanol and methanol, its 270 horse power makes this prototype the most powerful model. It is, though, about more than that.

The Malaysian-owned Norfolk producer explains: "Emerging technologies will allow alcohol fuels such as methanol, already a proven internal combustion fuel, to be made synthetically from carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere. A fuel derived renewably from atmospheric CO2 would be a key piece of the jigsaw allowing society to transfer to sustainable, renewable, carbon-neutral internal combustion." It adds that this is some 15 to 20 years away.

So what of now? There are plenty of small and medium cars with low-pollution engines that mitigate the double blow of high fuel prices and rising road tax fees. Any prospective buyer of a gas-guzzler can instead buy a cheap-to-run car that does 50 to the gallon, not 15. By 2010, we should be able to buy the 100mpg Axon, which putters happily along with a 600cc engine under a recycled, light and strong carbon-fibre carapace.

Electric vehicles are around 70 per cent greener than the equivalent fossil-fuelled car, which is an increasingly important consideration for new car buyers. Vehicle emission levels affect motoring costs, in particular vehicle excise duty, and electric cars are exempt from road tax nationally and the congestion charge in London, while free parking is available in Westminster and some surrounding boroughs.

Electric cars are already on sale. The G Wiz has been with

us for several years. It will be joined this year by the Norwegian Think. This has a claimed range of 125 miles, can reach 65mph and is recharged on a household plug.

At present prices, it will cost around 120 in juice for 10,000 miles of motoring, or roughly a tenth of oil costs for a conventional economy hatchback. The catch is that it costs 14,000, plus a monthly hire charge of 100 for the batteries which are thus replaced for free.

Next month's London Motor Show looks like being a lacklustre event in the current economic climate, so show-goers may take unusual interest in its Electric Vehicle Village, with a display of more than 20 vehicles which are propelled solely by battery power.

The future? It may have to be.