CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - With a fleet of vehicles resembling huge insects, spaceships and solar panels, motoring enthusiasts and manufacturers from around the world have gathered in northern Australia for a car race with a difference.
Known as the Global Green Challenge, solar-powered and fuel-efficient cars will set off Saturday to race 3,000 km (1,864 miles) through Australia's tropical rainforests, desert and coastal plains, all in the name of the environment.
A fleet of about 38 solar powered cars from 17 countries, designed mainly by engineering students, will take about a week to race from Darwin to Adelaide in the event that has been staged every two years since 1987.
For the first time there is also a second category, the Eco Challenge, in which 17 cars from 10 manufacturers will compete in eco-friendly vehicles now on sale, or soon to be on sale, to prove which is the most fuel-efficient.
"We believe the solar cars have pioneered a whole range of technological advancements but they are not practical road cars," event spokesman Mike Drewer told Reuters.
"But now, with the world looking for practical solutions, there are alternative vehicles being made by major manufacturers that are more fuel-efficient and have less emissions than the so-called norm. This event really is to promote the fact that a lot of this new technology is starting to become available."
The Eco Challenge consists of 17 entries, including the first production fully-electric sports car the Tesla, and vehicles made by Ford, Kia, Honda, Hyundai, BMW, Skoda, Suzuki, Holden, and HSV. Cars can only travel in prescribed time periods.
But Drewer expected most attention to remain on the World Solar Challenge with its fleet of unique and quirky vehicles that highlight research and development progress.
"The solar race event is unique in that it crosses an entire continent and has become the pinnacle for solar cars," he said.
For example, Australia's University of New South Wales' solar car, Sunswift IV, is a three-wheeled, carbon fiber machine which can reach a top speed of 115 km an hour using just 1,300 watts -- the same power it takes to toast two slices of bread.
A Dutch team from Delft University was expected to start out as the race's favorite after taking home the prestigious Silver Sun trophy for the last four races.
But their car, Nuna 5, rolled during testing in Darwin when it burst a rear type and for the past three weeks the team has been working round the clock to rebuild the vehicle.
Drewer said strong performances could be expected from the University of Michigan (USA) in Infinium, Britain's Cambridge University entry Endeavour and some Japanese contenders.
There are also expected to be entries from Belgium, Turkey, Germany, France, Malaysia, Switzerland, India, Canada, Iran, Taiwan, Greece and Singapore.
Event director Chris Selwood said it was hard to pick the winner in advance.
"We won't really see the technology and ingenuity until the cars are scrutinized in Darwin and a lot of things can happen on the journey south," he said in a statement.
The record for the World Solar Cars Challenge was set in 2005 by Nuon Nuna III, from the Netherlands, with an average speed of 102.75 km per hour.
Editing by Sugita Katyal