Yes, the world has Tesla and the Nissan Leaf, but those cars are only electric cars that run off batteries charged by the grid. But what if a car could drive 1800 miles on pure solar power? They already can.
Although they’re not at your local Ford dealer, solar electric cars have been around for decades. To encourage and promote the development of these vehicles, university students from around the world have competed in the Solar World Challenge, a solar electric vehicle car race that drives custom engineered solar EVs 3000 kilometers (1864 miles) through Australia. The mostly flat route travels from the northern city of Darwin, Australia down to Adelaide in the south.
To keep the competition fair, those who enter the Solar World Challenge have to abide by several strict rules. They can charge up from the grid at the starting point of the race, but that’s it. Once they’re off, only solar power can charge the electric motor and onboard batteries. In addition, there are numerous required technical specifications to keep the competition on a level playing field and safe for the drivers.
2013 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge
Like regular cars that are categorized as sports cars and family sedans, the Solar World Challenge has two different main competition classes:
The Challenger Class is essentially the Formula One of solar cars. Each car is designed primarily for efficiency rather than comfort or practicality, and also like Formula One cars, the challenger class solar cars have one seat for a single driver who weighs 180lbs or more.
However, the Cruiser Class has no weight limitation. These solar cars are the closest to what we might see on the street in the future. Aerodynamic, but designed primarily for practicality, solar cruisers can carry two or more occupants and are judged on external energy use, the time taken to complete the course, payload carried, and practicality.
How fast are these solar race cars? They’re not Ferraris, but they’ve been known to break the Australian speed limit in previous races, getting close to 70 mph. As a result, race rules were altered to slow things down and ensure driver safety. In 2013, the average speed of the winning Nuon Solar Team from Delft University of Technology team was around 90 km/hr, (56 mph).
In terms of distance, the race rules allow cars to travel between 8am and 5pm, so within that time, the Nuon team traveled around 400 miles per day, and would have gone longer without the race’s 8am to 5pm limits. To see some these solar race cars and race highlights, check out the final episode of the official Solar World Challenge news team:
While all of these solar cars look cool, there are a number of practical limitations that are preventing us all from driving around in solar EVs in the near future.
First is the safety issue. Every country has its own crash and safety standards, which are ultimately heavy and expensive additions to any solar car design. Reinforced bumpers, air bags, and frame construction will all have to be added in order to be a true passenger car vehicle. (Today, solar cars are often classified as motorcycles.)
Then there are the usual car features that we all have come to love, like air conditioning, power windows, power steering, etc. All of those features are expensive and add weight, slowing a solar car down and draining the batteries faster. Plus, solar powered recharging will of course be limited at night and on cloudy days.
To address these issues, battery technology and solar technology will have to improve—and they will—but not for some time.
What is a safe and affordable reality today is solar for your home. Solar installation prices have dropped dramatically over the last few years, but don’t take our word for it. Use our REC Solar calculator to estimate how much solar costs for you. Takes just a few minutes. Try it: