A table top on two wheels still isn’t a common sight on roads around the world. But if you ever catch one, be sure that it must be a solar car. The prototypes mostly took the form of flat solar collectors on four wheels with the driver just managing to squeeze himself in. As in anything experimental, interest in solar cars germinated in the fertile minds that occupy the portals of our universities. A Quixotic zeal against the carbon belching ‘environmental hazards’ we commonly call cars set off development of its solar cousin.
The solar car owes its existence to the photovoltaic cell. A tiny piece of silicon which transfers the power of the sun to the batteries. The photovoltaic cell made its appearance in the United States in 1954. Pioneering work by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson at the Bell Labs allowed us to harness the power of the sun for the first time. Thereon development progressed.
In the early years of automobiles, the races were the laboratories where car development often took place. And so has been the case with solar cars throughout its short history. Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins opened up solar car racing when they went on an epic Solar Trek from Perth to Sydney (Australia) in 1983. The vehicle practically resembled a 16 foot open boat. But it did 4052 km in 20 days, at an average speed 23 km/hour. This vehicle was the world’s first solar powered car. And its name fit the exploit – ‘Quiet Achiever’. The Danish adventurer’s exuberance helped. The solar car races soon started capturing eyeballs and helped to propagate solar energy as an alternative.
The success of his first venture across the Australian outback led Hans Tholstrup to start the World Solar Challenge in 1987. The leapfrog over the first effort showed in 1987 when GM’s Sunraycer won the event with an average speed of 67 km/hour. Today, the event is a biannual jamboree and also a barometer for the developments in the field of solar cars. For instance, 2005 witnessed cars touching speeds in excess of 100 km/hour. This lead to some major regulation changes concerning safety.
The World Solar Challenge started it and soon others followed the lead. The North American Solar Challenge brings to the fore numerous University teams pitting their brains as well as their skills against each other. This year’s one ran from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta. General Motors had followed up its success in the World Solar Challenge by starting this American/Canadian version. This was an inspirational effort to promote auto engineering and solar energy among college students. It may not have intruded into the popular firmament of Formula One, but with races around the world – the Suzuki Circuit (Japan), World Solar Rally (in Taiwan), Phaethon (Greece) amongst others, the enthusiast can expect action to flare up.
Today, solar cars have entered the realm of popular mechanics. Practical on road applications are looking to use solar energy in hybrid configurations. France’s Venturi AstroLab is being anticipated as the world’s first electro-solar hybrid car. With a top speed of 120 km/hour and a continuous run of 110 km, we just might see it kerbing up next to us. The 2008 Paris Motor Show featured there Venturi’s line of electric vehicles.
There’s the solar taxi or ‘Solartx’ for you. An example of Swiss vision, the car attempts to be a trendsetter for a dependable, everyday automobile. Powered by a 6 m² sized solar array, the vehicle goes 400 km without recharging. It includes a trailer and its maximum speed hovers around 90 km/hour.
Toyota is looking to add solar panels on its Prius. Innovatively, the optional attachments can deliver 300 watts of energy and also act as sunshades. 2009 might see its launch.
The ‘history of solar cars’ is almost an anachronism because it seems rather contemporary. But as technology develops and shapes with time, we might be looking at cars like the Prius as artifacts. Let’s hope that solar cars find their place in the sun.