Forget electric vehicles and hybrids: for many car enthusiasts and eco-rangers, the true green technology of the future lies with solar power. Today, many manufacturers are attempting to harness the sun’s power and utilize it in their vehicle’s design, but success has been illusive and limited. For decades, homeowners have reaped the benefits of installing solar panels on their roofs, including the millions of dollars saved by supplementing their power needs, so why is the automotive industry lagging so far behind?
The answer might be the solar powered vehicle’s inherent impracticality, or that the cost would be too great for a typical, middle class family. Either way, the history, technology, ins and outs of solar powered vehicles is a fascinating subject, which is definitely worth exploring.
Solar Powered Cars
The History of Solar Powered Cars
The history of solar powered vehicles can be traced back to the introduction of the photovoltaic cell into the American consciousness, which occurred on the university and laboratory level in the early 1950s.
The first solar powered car, dubbed as ‘Submobile’ was built by William G. Cobb of General Motors and was displayed at the Chicago Powerama convention on August 31, 1955. It was only 15-inch long and consisted of 12 selenium photovoltaic cells and small electric motors to turn the wheels. Three years later, the International Rectifier Company transformed the 1912 Baker electric car to run on photovoltaic cells and built the first drivable solar powered car. This car encompassed 10,460 solar cells installed on the rooftop to make it run. Later, many other inventors also built their solar powered cars such as the ‘Bluebird Solar Car’ by Ed Passereni, professor at Alabama University; the 4 wheel solar bicycle built by professor Masaharu Fujita of Tokyo Denki University; the1,320 pound solar Citicar built by the engineering department at Tel Aviv University in Israel and many more.
The initial solar powered cars were built for sport; often rival laboratories and institutions would race their crude inventions, which eventually led to the World and North American Solar Challenges. These races allowed universes to pit their solar powered vehicles against one another in the name of sport and technological advancement. Eventually, this technology trickled down into the world of commercial vehicle production, which became evident with the introduction of the France’s Venturi Astrolab, which was introduced at the 2006 Paris Auto Show.
How the Technology Works
If you have solar panels strapped to your roof, you’re probably already pretty familiar with how this technology works. There isn’t really much difference when solar panels are instead strapped to a car’s roof. The panels are covered with several photovoltaic cells (PVC), which convert the sun’s energy into usable electricity. These PVC cells are created from silicon semiconductors that absorb sunlight, creating a steady flow of electrons that generate electricity. The electricity then powers a specially designed battery, which in automobiles, is used in conjunction with a traditional gasoline-powered motor. The students at the University of Durham, UK built a modern solar car last year, which uses 391 silicon solar cells. The unique thing about this solar car was that although it was equipped with a 40kg lithium ferrite battery pack, the design idea was to minimize its usage.
Many manufacturers have integrated solar technology into their vehicles, some with limited success. For instance, the 2005 Mazda Senku featured roof mounted solar panels that partially powered the battery, while the 2006 Ford Flex was outfitted with solar powered headlights. The recently launched 2016 Ford C-Max Energi offers a solar-panel option which will use the solar energy to charge the electric car’s battery rather than searching for a charging station. The new Nissan Leaf features a photovoltaic solar-panel rear spoiler that can be used to harness sun’s energy and power the vehicle’s accessories. Mercedes also revealed its Vision G-Code concept in 2014 that featured a special multi-voltaic paint and was capable of producing fuel from solar and wind energy.
By far the hybrid-powered colossus, Toyota Prius, has integrated this technology with the greatest success. The 2012 model features two packages, the Solar Roof Package and the Deluxe Solar Roof Package, both of which harness the sun’s energy to power the vehicle’s ventilation system and air conditioning.
Pros and Cons
Needless to say, manufacturers must work out a variety of bugs before solar power becomes a viable and widespread option in the future. This is especially true for car makers attempting to create a true electro-solar hybrid, which would eliminate the need for gasoline completely. Before assuming that the idea of solar powered vehicles is devoid of flaws, here are a few positives and negatives to consider:
• Bye, Bye Gas – Like most Americans, you probably cringe at the possibility to filling up your car at the local convenience store. With gas prices becoming so ridiculously expensive, the introduction of solar power would all but eliminate this expense.
• Environmental Impact – It almost goes without mentioning, but the emissions created by your gasoline-powered vehicles are having a profound impact on the environment. That itself is a frightening thought which doesn’t bode well for future generations. Solar energy would all but eliminate these emissions, which for many is reason enough to pursue this technology.
• Weight – There’s no getting around the fact that even the most technologically advanced solar panels are extremely heavy. To make them feasible for use in the current auto industry would require eliminating the majority of a vehicle’s weight. Even if this was accomplished, the car would only have power enough to accommodate the driver alone.
• Driving on a Cloudy Day – In order for a purely solar powered vehicle to run, it must be supplied a constant source of sunlight. Imagine driving home from work and being stuck on the roadside until a rainstorm passed. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s a sad fact that must be remedied before any mass production is considered.
If you’re still holding to the dream of someday owning a solar powered car in the future, it’s best to start saving your money now. You can expect to pay a pretty penny to own a solar powered vehicle. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the first electro/solar hybrid vehicle will cost in excess of $100,000 or more. You can check out a website online for help with your vehicle update.
This post was written and contributed by Edson Farnell. Edson writes about various automotive topics. Many of Edson’s friends refer to him as the Auto Parts Geek.
The article was updated on 26th May, 2016.