Although cars have changed a lot over the years, they still share some important properties with solar-powered cars. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people were driving to work or school every day. With fewer people working remotely, there is a chance that the cars floating around are more than just decorative accessories and could serve a purpose. In fact, many of today’s cars were specifically designed to run on solar energy, and in some cases, they still can.
Here, we’ll explore the history of solar cars, why they exist, and how they work.
The Early Years Of Solar Cars
The idea of a solar-powered car goes back several decades, to the 1970s, when cars were still considered a mode of transportation rather than a product to be sold. The modern form of the solar car emerged in the late 1980s when oil prices skyrocketed and it became more expensive to run vehicles on fossil fuels. Companies such as Solar Impulse and Solar Rover were some of the first companies to experiment with solar cars, but they were never really practical in the grand scheme of things.
Solar Impulse was one of the first companies to experiment with putting a solar-powered car into production. The company’s founder, André Borschberg, aimed to make a more efficient and sustainable mode of transportation. He believed that by using renewable energy sources, such as solar power, he could reduce his group’s ecological footprint. His first prototype was simply a modified Boeing 727 with a 20-kilowatt solar array on the roof. The company produced these types of cars for several years, but they were never actually sold to the general public.
Solar Rover was founded by a man named Michael Richey, who previously worked for Lotus as their managing director. This company specialized in making solar-powered racecars, and they were also one of the first companies to experiment with putting a solar array on a boat. One of their first prototypes, known as the Sunfish, had an onboard computer and four motors, one of which was a large water-cooled engine. The company went on to produce boats with various arrays of solar cells, including the Sunfish, the Solstice, and most infamously, the E-Racer.
These cars were able to run solely on solar power, and they never needed to be plugged into an electrical outlet to charge. The motors would soak up the sun’s energy during the day and store it in a battery, which could then be used at night.
The early days of solar cars were pretty much all about experimentation. There weren’t any established rules or guidelines for making these types of vehicles, and many companies had a hard time convincing automobile manufacturers to give them a chance. That is, until the financial incentives became too great to resist.
The Expanding Market For Solar Cars
It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the mainstream market for solar cars started to emerge. Companies like Tesla and SolarCity started making cars more accessible to the average person by offering them at a discounted price. At the same time, advances in solar technology made it cheaper and easier to implement.
Tesla’s first car with a solar array was the famous Roadster, which was released in 2004 and featured a glass roof that allowed for the capture of solar energy during the day. This enabled the car to run for several hours without needing to be plugged in. The car’s innovative design also allowed for a greater airflow, which improved car performance and reduced fuel consumption. Since then, they’ve released several other models with similar innovations.
SolarCity’s entry into the market was slightly less luxurious – at least, from a marketing standpoint. The firm started by selling solar-powered hot pads and tents in 2014 and then extended their product line to include a variety of vehicles, from golf carts to scooters.
This wave of companies entering the market opened the doors for other automakers as well. In 2017, Volkswagen released the I.D. Buggy, which was basically an electric car with a retractable roof – designed, of course, to run on solar power. The French automaker Renault also jumped on the bandwagon, releasing their own line of solar cars.
All Vehicles Are Not Created Equal
Although most of today’s cars can and do run on solar power, that doesn’t mean that all of them are capable of being converted. A good solar car would need to have two things: a) a reliable engine and b) a functional gearbox.
Most automobiles contain a few differentials and a few different gears. These parts wear out over time and can cause a lot of damage if not replaced regularly. The good news is that automatic gearboxes can be found for practically any car and can be bought separately for around $500. They also make shifting gears much easier, and that alone can make a difference in terms of fuel economy.
These parts are also rather expensive when compared to the overall cost of the car. In most cases, it’s not worth it to just replace a few components, so it would be best to fix the vehicle in its entirety. That way, the overall resale value will be preserved.
Why Use Solar Power?
There are multiple advantages to using solar power to run cars. Not only does it help reduce a company’s ecological footprint and lower gas prices, but it also allows for greater personal freedom. Let’s take a quick look at some of the main reasons why so many people are jumping on the solar car bandwagon these days.
It’s always good to try and reduce your impact on the environment as much as possible, and solar cars are one of the more eco-friendly modes of transportation currently available. The entire process of manufacturing and driving a solar car emits far fewer carbon molecules into the air than a traditional combustion-engine car. Plus, the array of solar cells can be recharged by simply standing outside during the day, thus avoiding the need for any electrical outlets or wiring. The only byproduct of manufacturing a solar car is water, which is either recycled or cleaned up through filtration systems.
As mentioned, oil prices soared in the early 2010s, and it became more expensive to operate vehicles on fossil fuels. This caused a paradigm shift in how people viewed cars, as many companies started to see them as a luxury item rather than a necessary mode of transportation. A luxury item? That is, until they cut you off in traffic, forcing you to consider a more cost-efficient mode of transit. It’s always good to have some extra leeway in your wallet when traveling –at least, until you want to purchase a cup of coffee or find a parking spot– because at that point, you’ll realize how much money you’re losing.
These days, especially since the price of solar energy has decreased so much over the years, it’s quite tempting to look into the cost effectiveness of a solar car. One of the main reasons why so many cars are being manufactured in China these days is because that country has set very low tariffs on imported vehicles. This has made it cheaper for automakers to make cars there, while still ensuring that enough profit is made to justify the investment. Some companies have even built entire factories in China just to handle the huge demand for their cars. Not only does it help lower the overall cost of a vehicle, but it can also help reduce your fuel costs significantly.
The bottom line is that even before the pandemic, people were driving less due to economic concerns, which led to a higher number of abandoned cars on the road. With fewer people driving, there is a chance that the number of solar cars will rise as well.
In summary, even before the pandemic, cars were already on the decline as a means of transportation. This was largely due to increased fuel costs and low oil prices, as well as increased automobile ownership among people who could afford better modes of transit.
This trend is likely to continue with the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequential travel restrictions, as people are trying to avoid putting others in harm’s way – as well as themselves – due to the “flattening” of the curve.
As with most things in life, going green is always the way forward, which is why cars will most certainly continue to evolve as a result of the pandemic. It might just be a matter of time before we see completely new forms of transportation emerge, ones that are better for the environment and also allow for greater personal freedom. As long as there is demand for cars, and there is still a large population of people who cannot easily get themselves to work, vehicles with a more sustainable option will continue to be built.