TECHNOLOGY : Something New Under the Hawaiian Sun: a Solar Car : Japan will import up to 2,000 SunRay zero-emission vehicles. Assembly will take place at a former sugar plantation town.


The next American car to penetrate the Japanese market will come not from the Big Three, but from an ailing sugar town on the island of Hawaii. And the vehicle won’t use gasoline.

YB Planning Inc. of Tokyo signed a joint venture agreement in late February with Suntera, the Solar Electric Chariot Co. of Hawaii, to import up to 2,000 SunRays to Japan over the next 1 1/2 years. The first 200 of the innovative electric mini-cars are to be delivered by this fall.

“I think we’ll get a very good response in Japan,” said Tetsuo Oguma, president of YB Planning, a family-owned water and waste treatment company. “There is a demand for zero-emission cars.”

Oguma, who once worked as a Nissan dealer, plans to market the sporty, egg-shaped SunRay as a commuter vehicle. The first 200 will cost him $21,680 apiece, with that figure expected to drop closer to $13,000 as production picks up. The company says the two-seat SunRay, which can be charged with ordinary household outlets or solar panels, reaches 70 m.p.h. and has a range of up to 100 miles between charges.



Metalcraft Products of Romulus, Mich., will manufacture the chassis, and a consortium of tooling companies in Fraser, Mich., will produce the cab, made of composite materials. The cars will be assembled in Honokaa, a Hawaiian plantation town whose sugar workers harvested their final crop in October. The state is providing loans for $1.1 million to build an assembly plant there and test the car.

“We’re not General Motors, we’re a small entrepreneurial company,” said Jonathan Tennyson, the car’s designer and Suntera president. “It’s such an elegant and simple machine that it doesn’t need that Detroit megalopolis infrastructure.”

Suntera delivered a prototype pickup truck version, known as a Pickette, to its first customer, Hawaii Electric Light Co., last month. After taking it for a spin around the Capitol, Gov. Ben Cayetano declared that “it has a lot of zip.” Suntera is also building one mini-pickup for the Navy and two for the Air Force.

The SunRay was featured at the Geneva International Automobile Exposition. It was the only American electric car to be invited.

For Tennyson, the moves culminate 20 years and several million dollars of research and design, most of it at his 10-acre organic farm on the slopes of Mauna Kea, where everything runs on sunshine, including the tractor. His friend, the late shampoo magnate Paul Mitchell, financed his early research. More recently, the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency contributed $570,000, and there is more in the pipeline.


So far, much electric vehicle production has focused on converting conventional cars to electric use. But because such cars are laden with unnecessary parts--from the radiator to the exhaust pipe--Tennyson preferred to start from scratch. He claims to have come up with a safe, environmentally benign, low-cost, rustproof, low-maintenance vehicle. Unlike regular cars, which have more than 25,000 parts, the SunRay has fewer than 2,000.


Anthony Locricchio, Suntera’s chief executive officer, said: “On the SunRay, the maintenance is ultra-simple. The motor has one moving part.”

Consumers can charge their cars with solar panels sold as an option with the car, either for stationary use at home or bolted on board. Even if it is powered by conventional energy, Tennyson says, his car is more efficient than regular cars--using no energy, for example, when it is stalled in traffic. Drivers may recharge their cars overnight, he added, and emissions are more easily controlled at a power plant than tens of thousands of gas-burning vehicles.

Company officials envision the car as an option for multi-car families, suitable for short hauls and commuting.

Because it has three wheels, the vehicle is classified as a motorcycle in the United States. To enhance safety, Tennyson is using crush-resistant materials. He also designed the car so that the driver rides high in the vehicle, out of the “crunch zone” of conventional side collisions. The central spine of the car, where the batteries are, is buffered with foam composite to absorb the impact of head-on collisions.


“It’s the world’s safest ‘motorcycle’ because the whole body of the car becomes a helmet,” Locricchio said. “The egg shape was chosen for its strength.”

Stephen Summers, a crashworthiness engineer with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has consulted with SunRay’s designers, helping them interpret safety standards.

“Their concepts appear very sound,” Summers said in an interview. “You have to wait and see how it performs in the final run, in crash testing.”



Like his car, Tennyson’s company is unconventional. All 18 Suntera employees, from secretary to chief executive officer, make the same salary: $20,000 a year. The company expects to have 100 employees in a year, assembling 20 cars a day at the Honokaa plant.

Chihiro Oguma, vice president of YB Planning, acknowledged that his family’s firm, which has annual revenue of $20 million, was making a bold move in lending its support to the SunRay.

“Somebody has to start, to take a first step,” he said. “We think we can help change some attitudes toward the environment.”



The Plug-In Car


Length: 96 inches Width: 67 inches Height: 69 inches Weight: 1,600 pounds Seating capacity: 2 Power: 10 lead-acid batteries Motor: 13 horsepower Performance: 0-60 m.p.h. in 18 seconds Top speed: 70 m.p.h. Range: 100 miles at 25 m.p.h. 65 at 45 m.p.h.