Have you been feeling more energetic now that summer is bringing us sunnier days? Auto makers are paying attention and have been busy developing exciting innovations involving solar-powered vehicle design. Free streaming sunlight has long been the ideal source of clean energy but has been notoriously difficult to transfer into practical transportation. The main obstacles are the expense and weight of solar panels, plus the inconvenient fact that the sun doesn’t shine 24/7 (except summertime in the far north). Add the tendency to park cars in garages or shady areas and you have some serious challenges to overcome.
None of this has stopped countless researchers and automotive designers from attempting to build environmentally friendly cars running on renewable solar power. Australian solar car pioneers in the 1980s led to intensive research in the 90s, and recent electric technology developments have brought some interesting solar innovations. Ford partnered with SunPower in 2011 to offer a rooftop solar system to partially power its Focus Electric, and several electric car charging stations are presently powered by solar panels. New vehicles powered solely by the sun suggest we’re just beginning to see the true potential of solar power in relation to auto careers.
Solar-powered city car
A city car prototype powered solely by solar power has been developed together by six top European companies and research institutions. The vehicle weighs less than 600kg, is designed specifically for city travelers in sunny south-European regions, has a maximum speed of 100 km/h and a range of 20km. The team focused on shortcomings of existing electric vehicles with the input of professionals with auto mechanic training and created more efficient solar cells, e-motor and magnetic torque control, making the first vehicle with a two-motor powertrain. Its front and rear wheel axles are independent, with one motor per axle, providing effective four-wheel drive and variation of the torque ratio, dependent on driving conditions.
The design has met the highest safety ranking, using two doors on one side only to reduce drag and complexity. Smart photovoltaic panels with self-adapting electronics minimize loss of energy by imperfect light conditions but if the sun isn’t strong enough, it can be plugged into a regular electric car outlet.
Solar-powered family cars
Students at the Netherlands’ Eindhoven University of Technology have developed a sun-fueled car called Stella that can carry around a family of four. With a rounded aerodynamic windscreen and six square meters of beautiful blue solar panels on the roof, the curiously looking machine has a reported range of 600 km and is entered in the Australia-crossing World Solar Challenge. After the battery has been fully charged while parked outside, Stella can contribute excess power back to the grid. While still just a prototype, the technical director believes this kind of technology could be seen on roads within the decade.
Golf carts today, buses tomorrow
Tecumseh, Ontario-based Unconquered Sun Solar Technology, near the Windsor/Detroit border, has recently partnered with South Carolina’s Star EV to install solar panels on a range of plug-in electric vehicles, including golf carts, off-road vehicles and 10-passenger people movers. The utility vehicles are already legal in 43 U.S. states and expect Canadian certification within a few months, with orders received from the Toronto Grand Prix and NASA. Costing only $7- 20,000, the value should be apparent to anyone with car sales training. The 550-watt solar roof assembly, regulated by a voltage conversion system, is able to efficiently supply continuous current even on cloudy or overcast days, because there is still radiant energy in the sky. The vehicle can be plugged in during periods of sustained darkness.
Advancements in technology have significantly improved a panel’s ability to recharge the battery. The company believes city buses are ideal for solar panels because of their size and geometry and argue that $80,000 a year in fuel costs could be saved on Transit Windsor’s Crosstown route alone.
Do you think we will see more solar-powered vehicles on BC roads soon?