Australian team smashes 26-year-old electric car world record

UNSW's Sunswift eVe has broken a long-standing electric car speed record and now shifts gears to make the car street-legal. And CNET got to take the car for a spin.

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Sunswift, a solar car racing team from the University of New South Wales, has today broken an electric car world record that has stood since 1988. The record, overseen by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), measures the average speed of an electric vehicle over a 500km distance on a single charge.

The record-breaking vehicle is Sunswift's fifth car, the Sunswift eVe. The vehicle previously ran in the 2013 World Solar Challenge, a 3,000km solar car race in Australia that runs from Darwin to Adelaide. The car has a top speed of 140kph with an electric-only range of approximately 500km, or up to 800km when its solar cells are also active -- all while using about as much power as a kitchen toaster when travelling at freeway speeds. The solar system was turned off to adhere to the electric car specific record attempt.

Late Wednesday afternoon from the track in Victoria, Australia, they tweeted to confirm their success.

Sunswift smashed the existing record of 73 kilometres per hour, achieving a final new record of over 100kph with a final official result awaiting confirmation with the FIA.

For the record attempt the team of university students was required to work with FIA accredited professional drivers. One of the drivers, Garth Walden, was particularly pleased with the opportunity.

"As a racing driver you always want to be on the podium and it's not everyday you get to break a world record," said Walden. "I really enjoyed hanging out with the team and being part of history."

For the Sunswift team, the result was about proving the future of everyday viability for solar electric vehicles -- achieving a speed that shows an electric vehicle can sustain freeway speeds over an extended range.

"Five hundred kilometres is pretty much as far as a normal person would want to drive in a single day," said Hayden Smith, project director and engineering student.

"This is really about curing people's fear of the lack of speed and curing their range anxiety, showing this car can travel at high speeds for long distances which is really what everyone wants."

The Sunswift team is now working on modifying the car to make it street legal and expects to be able to drive it on public roads in 2015.

UNSW's Sunswift eVe breaks a 26-year-old FIA electric car speed record. Dave Cheng/CNET

What it's like to drive eVe

We had a chance to take eVe for a spin in the weeks leading up to the record attempt at a track in Sydney. The car is built like a race car, made for efficiency and not for comfort, with a low-slung racing seat and incredibly stiff suspension.

Acceleration and regenerative braking were both managed via paddles on the steering wheel instead of foot pedals, with only the mechanical brake at your feet. It was readily apparent the vehicle would need a lot of ergonomic work to become street-legal, as it is difficult to get in and out, and requires such gymnastics as crossing your legs to reach the brake pedal if you're anywhere near average height.

But these adjustments feel like simple window dressing compared to the feats of engineering already achieved by this team to build this record breaking car. Smith identifies this as a big challenge, but making eVe Australia's first road-legal solar-powered car would be a record that can never be taken away from the team.