Sun, Jun 15, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Iranian students’ solar car challenge starts with US plane ticket

By Arthur Macmillan  /  AFP, QAZVIN, Iran

Iranian students from the Qazvin Azad Islamic University, west of Tehran, perform a test drive of the solar-powered Havin-2 vehicle on June 2.

Photo: AFP

It is not easy for an Iranian to visit the US. With no US embassy in Tehran since 1979, obtaining a visa usually requires two costly trips to Dubai or Turkey.

However, a group of Iranian students have a far bigger problem — they want to send a car to the US. Only then will they get on a plane.

The Havin-2 is no ordinary vehicle. Solar powered, its 4.5m carbon fiber chassis resembles a giant door. The four wheels that lurk beneath its sprawling white body are the only clue it is a car at all.

As entrants to the American Solar Challenge, a 2,735km road trip next month across seven US states from Austin, Texas, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lot is at stake for the young Iranians.

However, the sad reality is that the Havin-2 may never reach the start line.

“We are really worried about it,” said Mohammad Saadatmand, the mechanical leader of the team from Qazvin Azad Islamic University, west of Tehran.

“To think that we might not make it is almost too terrible to contemplate,” he said.

The road block they face is more daunting than consular paperwork.

Standing in their path are the sanctions imposed on Iran by the US and other world powers as punishment for a nuclear program that many believe masks an intention to develop an atomic bomb.

The restrictions make transporting the Havin-2 by air cargo a logistical nightmare.

The Iranian team is confident it can hold its own against the mostly US competitors, which includes the illustrious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The question is whether they will get the chance.

“This car has made us crazy,” said Alireza Malmali, the team’s electronics specialist who has now switched his attention to trying to find an air carrier.

Giving a tour at the team’s spartan workshop, where the Havin-2 lurks under a tarpaulin, the prospect of being barred is writ large across his face.

“I wish governments across the world would accept we are researchers, not terrorists,” he said.

The cargo arms of Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa all refused to carry the Havin-2, citing fears of breaching sanctions.

Several other companies set impractical conditions for carriage.

A letter from the US Department of Treasury appears to confirm that the car does not require special authorization if is being used “in a public conference, performance, exhibition or similar event.”

However, the solar challenge organizer were unable to navigate the regulations.

“It has been very difficult,” said Sue Eudaly, the event’s team coordinator. “We went to a senator, who directed us to the State Department who then sent us to the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Ultimately, I guess we were not a high priority case.”

Last ditch negotiations with a Tehran-based carrier are now under way.

Even then, a delivery date no later than July 1, which the carrier is reluctant to guarantee, leaves less than two weeks for the Havin-2 to clear customs in time for the start of the race.

The costs of sending the team and the car to the US mean only 12 of the 18 students involved, all of whom have obtained visas, will travel.

Located 160km from the capital, Qazvin has 300 days of sunshine a year. Good roads stretch for kilometers across a largely barren desert landscape.

To ensure a level playing field in the US, all teams will rely on 516 photovoltaic panels, or solar cells, made in the US and patched together in Germany.

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