POZNAN, Poland – If a solar-powered car can drive 32,000 miles around the globe without using a drop of oil, perhaps it can be forgiven for not having a coffee-cup holder.
Or maybe that makes Swiss adventurer Louis Palmer's journey even more remarkable.
Palmer rolled into the U.N. climate conference in his solar car Thursday, a man with a mission: To prove that the world can continue its love affair with the car without burning any polluting fossil fuels and still enjoy a smooth ride.
While some 11,000 delegates sought an ambitious new climate change deal to slash emissions of heat-trapping gases, Palmer was convinced that whatever they agreed upon won't be enough to avert environmental disaster.
"Here at the conference, we are talking about reducing emissions by 10 or 20 percent," Palmer said. "I want to show that we can reduce emissions by 100 percent — and that's what we need for the future."
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Palmer, a teacher on leave from his job, spent 17 months driving his own creation — a fully solar-powered car built with the help of Swiss scientists — through 38 countries. The two-seater travels up to 55 mph and covers 185 miles on a fully charged battery.
"This is the first time in history that a solar-powered car has traveled all the way around the world without using a single drop of petrol," he said, adding that he lost only two days to breakdowns.
To make his point, he took an Associated Press reporter for a ride Thursday.
Palmer lifted a light plastic flap that acts as a door before climbing in. He then flipped a switch to activate the electric engine and set off as the motor hummed softly, much more quietly than a traditional car.
For now, the aluminum and fiberglass car is still a prototype, and it feels like one. The car, designed to be light and efficient, is powered by solar cells that it hauls on a trailer. It has plastic windows, three wheels instead of four and ironically, no climate control.
Designed like a race car, it can hold two people comfortably and has a radio. It meets all safety standards in Switzerland and has headlights, brakes, blinkers and other standard safety features. Before his world trip, Palmer, 36, used it for a year to commute to the school in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he taught.
Although he tried to avoid what he called "dinosaur technology," his steering wheel was from a Renault, his windshield wipers from a Fiat and his wheels were from a Smart car, the Daimler AG two-seater that is ubiquitous in many European cities.
He has given a ride to approximately 1,000 people so far, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and on Thursday, U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer.
Delegates in Poznan are seeking a new climate treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and has required that 37 countries slash emissions of heat-trapping gases by an average 5 percent from 1990 levels. The goal is for the new treaty to be finalized at the next U.N. climate meeting in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
After a summer that saw fuel prices rise uncontrollably, many automakers — from the U.S. to Japan — are investing in research with the aim of producing alternatively powered cars using electricity, biofuel and even hydrogen. Environmental advocates hope these efforts will continue even as oil prices have dropped substantially.
Hawaii this week unveiled plans to build a network of charging stations for electric cars and to provide recharged batteries. There are also plans to offer similar services in Australia, Denmark and Israel.
Palmer says there's no reason why car companies couldn't make a much better version of his solar-powered car if they set their mind to it.
"These new technologies are ready," he said. "It's ecological, it's economical, it is absolutely reliable. We can stop global warning."