There are some odd-looking solar cars racing across Australia now

Being cooped up inside one of the cars racing in Australia’s biannual World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide looks like the most uncomfortable experience ever for those behind the wheel. You can imagine the drivers having to be lifted out of the vehicle by a small crane once they cross the finish line, their limbs having seized up somewhere south of Uluru.

Aimed at inspiring research and development work in sustainable road transport, the 30th anniversary of the 1,860-mile race kicked off on Sunday with 42 solar-panel-laden cars from 40 countries hitting the road across three classes of vehicle.

The Challenger category tends to get the most attention thanks to the cars’ often striking designs that allow them to reach speeds of just over 60 mph using only the power of the sun.

This year the race organizers decided to make things a little tougher for the designers and engineers who create the cars by decreasing the permitted size of the solar collector area on each vehicle.

The favorite to reach the finish line first is Nuna9 from the Dutch Nuon Solar Team, which is aiming for its eighth World Solar Challenge win. The team says it has tweaked Nuna9’s design for this year’s event by removing its overhanging nose to reduce aerodynamic drag.

“With our successes in previous years, every year is harder to get a great result,” the team said. “This means our students have to become more innovative every year.”

U.S. participation includes the Sundae solar car from Stanford University. The team said its design aims for “reliability and safety … rather than focusing primarily on speed, paying special attention to car handling when possible,” adding that the race is “a unique opportunity to exercise our car in the most intense way possible, truly proving its mettle and testing our team at the same time.”

Racers in the Challenger class will be out to beat the fastest time to date, set by a Japanese team from Tokai University, which crossed the line with a driving time of 29 hours and 49 minutes in 2009.

Besides the Challenger class, the Cruiser category focuses more on practical designs that you might actually want to ride in for more than a few minutes, and includes at least two seats. The Adventure class, meanwhile, comprises cars from previous races and could include those that don’t quite meet the requirements for the other two categories.

The vehicles, which make several stops along the route through Australia’s barren outback, are expected to cross the finish line in Adelaide on Thursday, October 12.